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Own the Last Mile 172

Posted by Zonk
from the get-the-last-word dept.
jonabbey writes "Robert X. Cringely's most recent column advocates a radical solution to the network neutrality thicket: create our own last mile infrastructure, rather than paying the telcos and cable companies to use our bandwidth as a lever. From the article: "A model in which the infrastructure is paid for as infrastructure -- privately, locally, nationally, and internationally can create a true marketplace in which the incentives are aligned. Instead of having the strange phenomenon of carriers spending billions and then arguing that they deserve to be paid, we'd have them bidding on contracts to install and/or maintain connectivity to a marketplace that is buying capacity and making it available so value can be created without having to be captured within the network and thus taken out of the economy."
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Own the Last Mile

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  • by jkrise (535370) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @07:29AM (#15642132) Journal
    A model in which the infrastructure is paid for as infrastructure -- privately, locally, nationally, and internationally can create a true marketplace in which the incentives are aligned...

    Despite the availability of Free software -- both as in beer, and in freedom... the software marketplace remains skewed in favour of corporate giants, patent trolls etc. What incentive would the bandwidth providers have... for practising a transparent and 'fair' bisiness model? How many 'consumers' are technically capable / informed to take up this task? Can't see this model working on either side of the equation...
  • by A_Mythago (204246) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @07:39AM (#15642153) Journal
    As optimist as this article is (and adds a nice bashing of Microsoft that should please this crowd), it fails to take in account the other side of the telecomms strategy for "metering the internet". There has been a legislative push to throw so many roadblocks against municipal broadband projects at both the state and federal level, often citing "anticompetive environment" as a justification against them.
    Considering the virtual monopoly positions held by most providers in their areas of services, it is apparent they have seen the potential (and threat) of municipal broadband projects to their mid and long term plans for the internet.
    "Owning the last mile" is a beautiful vision and expresses the American dream in the digital age...unless you they have already outlawed it in your area.
  • Re:True Solution (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ScentCone (795499) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @07:49AM (#15642169)
    The internet is a huge international resource, I never understood why a few monopoly-prone corporations were put in charge of those last few miles anyway

    The internet is a collection of networks. "It" doesn't exist, per se. We only see it as a system because it behaves as one - but it's not like it's some natural resource that copper providers are keeping us from.

    In most cases, the companies that have copper (telephone lines for dial-up or DSL, or coaxial cable for TV) were doing that before broadband to your house was even a consideration. They weren't "put in charge" of the last few miles, they invested a ton of money to string up untold miles of cable all over the place so that they could, over the long term, make money by charging people to use what they'd just spent that money installing. Hauling data over that same infrastucture came later, usually long after some areas were already wired up.

    Now, I live in a 20-yeard old neighborhood, and I've got my choice of two cable providers, two telcos, and now a fiber provider. They've all pulled their own buried conduis through the area, and will drop off their service right at the wall of my house. They're competing viciously for my bundled bandwith/cable/phone dollars. I haven't really even bothered to evaluate the wireless options since that's less appealing to me.

    But the main thing is that your local telco and cable weren't put in charge of your internet connection - they were the ones that already had the infrastructure in place. A completely new pipe to your house, provided by someone else (including yourself) is very, very expensive - you need trucks, utility permits, labor, materials, and something to plug it all into. The math rarely makes sense unless you know you're making a long-term committment. Phone companies figure they are, since even if you move away, the odds are good that the next person at that address will also want the same service. That stability is what made it worth their investment to put that copper there in the first place - and it usually takes years and years of your paying the phone bill to offset what they paid to put it there.
  • by Jeff DeMaagd (2015) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @08:15AM (#15642200) Homepage Journal
    "Owning the last mile" is a beautiful vision and expresses the American dream in the digital age...unless you they have already outlawed it in your area.

    Please state where it is illegal to set up a new commercial ISP. I don't think you need an ISP owned by the local government, which is really what telco & cableco fought against. They didn't outlaw commercial internet services. You can try competing against them as an actual business not funded by the local government, which is probably a better way to go anyway.
  • by brendanoconnor (584099) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @08:16AM (#15642201)
    While the idea of setting up community networks then buying bandwidth to be shared amongst everyone certainly is appealing to many of us, there are many more people that just wouldn't be interesting. Not to mention, it would be a brutal fight with the incumbent telcos and cable companies. Even once the network is built in said local community, I am sure the telcos would try and rack up as huge a cost for the higher bandwidth lines just because. Now, this would not be a problem if the government was on our side, but lets face it, demo or repub, they both belong to big business. With most of if not all of our government on company payroll, I find it near impossible for community networks to become the norm and not the extremely rare exception that they are now. I hope I am wrong. Brendan
  • Re:wireless (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ozmanjusri (601766) <aussie_bob&hotmail,com> on Saturday July 01, 2006 @08:41AM (#15642239) Journal
    The problem is...

    Those are not the real barriers to adoption of freenets in the real world. If you look at projects like WA Freenet http://www.e3.com.au/ [e3.com.au], you can see the infrastructure here is being built by a handful of enthusiasts. If there was a coordinated effort by local governments, the network would be complete by now.

    The key problem is that such a network, allowing things like VOIP and video streaming, would cut the legs out from under existing telcos and media groups. It would make a decentralised network which is unaccountable and uncontrollable (by the government). In Australia, common carrier laws are being used to stop the freenets from connecting to the bigger internet. If a workaround is found for that, another barrier will be put in place.

  • Re:True Solution (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Znork (31774) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @08:43AM (#15642243)
    "A completely new pipe to your house, provided by someone else (including yourself) is very, very expensive"

    Yet we manage to accomplish more or less exactly the same thing with road infrastructure, without having five companies running their own roads to every house, then charging the house owners for access.

    It's not that hard to design a system after that model, with specific interchange points on a local level.
  • by Morosoph (693565) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @08:47AM (#15642249) Homepage Journal
    If this last mile is how one gets out of the "tiered internet", it presumably means that one gets out of ISP censorship. Government might (in effect) block this initiative, therefore, by requiring anything approximating an ISP to perform basic censorship, wiretapping, etc. to the extent that only a large, established ISP can provide.

    I expect that you'll find large ISPs ever-keener to "work with government" to address "common concerns" (as opposed to say real, quantifiable risks) if this took off.
  • by MindPrison (864299) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @09:15AM (#15642305) Journal
    ...see how wrong they where?

    I'm a radio amateur, don't know what that is? Look up ARRL on Google and educate yourself.

    The idea of making an international network predates the Internet, actually way back in time when Samuel Morse invented ...well..duh...Morse code. Of course, morse code....slow as it is - isn't practical for a world-wide-wireless network with todays demands for broadband and hight troughput, but the Radioamateurs are the ones that carry the solution for nearly every wireless innovation in the world. Who's the first to try out new untested stuff? Radio amateurs, who's the first to utilize it all before it becomes mainstream? Who's do YOU know that communicates today digitally via their own satellites? You may not know anyone - but they're radioamateurs and they're in this world - way ahead as usual - perhaps not old "grandpappy HAM-operator from-way-back" but the legacy he and so many others carried on - lives in us - the younger generation who grew up with bread-board electronics and became engineers, technicians...and yes.. radio amateurs - your average radio-shack hobbyist. You may not know it - even though radio-shack and the likes all over the planet are phasing out old-style electronics - we're still active and inventive.

    Fancy - a little history and a waving finger, but where does that place us? Well - you brought it up to the public and you read it, participated in it - a suggestion to create our own world wide intranet. I say it's a GREAT idea, not new as you can read from this and history - but is it feasible? Well - turn to radioamateurs, call out NOW and get cracking! (and no - that's not cracking, it's a metaphor for get busy!)

    Things as they are now:

    A world wide wireless Ad-Hoc network. More and more mainboards plus laptops come with wireless adaptors built right in, as you may know already - these are radio transmitters & receivers. A little engineering and these can be modified to support such an idea, heck....you can even use it today without modifying anything but software.

    In the radio-amateur world we have something called Packet-Radio. Packet radio can be hideously slow and it can also be really fast, it all depends on the same things YOU depend on...bandwith....and the actual band. A little radio theory for you all: The short wave bands are great for reaching long distances and a relatively reliable connection that can last for hours - worldwide! The shortwave bands shortcomings is that they're not carrying a lot of bandwidth for data usage so we need to be creative. For 20 years ago - no one would have guessed that you could transmit digital Hifi-Stereo radio streams via the shortwave band in a few kilohertz bandwith, but you can - look it up on Google - it's called DRM (no Not Digital Rights Management) But Digital Radio Mondale. This shows you how creative you can get being a radio amateur engineer - and we haven't reached the limits there yet. Now for the more interesting bands - VHF and UHF. These bands doesn't reach very far, but we have higher bandwidth capabilities and it could potentially sport speeds up to an average 56 K modem. 56 K is not very fast, but the good thing about radio is that you can be several users onto several servers using the same frequency but far away from each other...thus you could in fact share a 2 mbit "wireless" line just using packet radio alone because all users wont be onto that same 56K relay! And best of all - it's free, you need a radio-amateur license though.

    Ok, 56 K not enough for you even if it's free? How about microwaves? yes - thats what you already use today with your existing wireless equipment - yes even as hight as 5 ghz. If you read my post so far, then you probably have guessed that the microwave distance will be even less...shortwave reaches far..but have low bandwidth ...Vhf...medium bandwidth ...and UHF to microwave have Mega to Gigabit capability, now we're talking, right?

    Truth is - it's alre
  • Nationilze? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Yez70 (924200) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @09:37AM (#15642346)
    I know this goes completely against the 'American way' but maybe it should be considered. Besides, WE paid for the telco networks, WE subsidize them in taxes that never end. WE have put up with their BS for long enough. The bloated telco's are already facing their demise as communication becomes cheaper and cheaper thru alternative sources, and will eventually be completely free or near to it for the majority.

    Let's use 'eminent domain' the right way, not against the citizens, but against the corrupt telcos whose only interest is their own survival and profits - not the consumer.

    On the flip side - there is already a company building a free wi-fi network, you share your wi-fi and you get to use everyone elses too - free - or don't share it and only pay a fair $2 a day to use other people's wi-fi hotpsots. Check out: http://en.fon.com/ [fon.com]
  • by lseltzer (311306) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @09:38AM (#15642349)
    People who buy service from an ISP aren't just buying raw connectivity, they're buying e-mail service, proxies, some security facilities, tech support and a lot more. Maybe it's a bad deal, but Cringely's $17.42 figure is not an accurate one.
  • by Rinisari (521266) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @10:30AM (#15642437) Homepage Journal
    I've pulled out some choice thoughts from the article:
    To Bob the issues surrounding Net Neutrality come down to billability and infrastructure. While saying they are doing us favors, ISPs are really offering us services they can bill for. Nothing is aimed at helping us, while everything is aimed at creating a billable event.
    This is true, don't act like you don't know it. Every corporation wants every chance to make money--it wouldn't be a profitable business if it didn't.
    Take WiFi hotspots, for example. Why should the telephone or cable company care about who connects to my WiFi access point? They are my bits, not the ISP's. I paid for them. If I can download gigabytes of pornography why can't I share my hotspot with someone walking down the street wanting to check his e-mail? Frankston's analogy for this is accusing someone of stealing your porch light by using it to read a street sign.
    That may be about the best analogy I've ever heard for relating using someone else's wireless access point. From the buisness point of view, I can see where ISPs want each individual using their bandwidth to pay them, but if a person has already paid for a connection and is willing to share it, he should be allowed to do so.
    Well we did [build public infrastructure], didn't we, with the National Information Infrastructure program of the 1990s, which was intended to bring fiber straight to most American homes? About $200 billion in tax credits and incentives went primarily to telephone companies participating in the NII program. What happened with that? They took the money, that's what, and gave us little or nothing in return.
    They used it, and now they charge us for it. Money that should have been given to towns and cities went to corporations. I love America.
    Using the higher $1,500 figure, the cost to finance the system over 10 years at today's prime rate would be $17.42 per month.
    I'm paying $40 per month right now for an incredibly snaillike 512 kbps cable line and my parents, who live five miles away, are paying $43 per month for a 4 Mbps cable line that they barely use! Since I moved out, I'll bet their bandwidth usage is under 200 MB, and I've been out for a month. I'd gladly welcome this stuff in New Wilmington--lower cost, more bandwidth. And bragging rights.
    One billion dollars each in seed capital from Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo, and Google would be enough to set neighborhood network dominos falling in communities throughout America with no tax money ever required. And they'd get their money back, both directly and indirectly, many times over.
    Call it the investment of the millennium. Hell, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation [gatesfoundation.org] could finance it independently with all the money it just got [nytimes.com]. It'll give kids a real Internet connection to enhance their education. Please, Think of the Children [wikipedia.org]!
  • by electroniceric (468976) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @11:51AM (#15642640)
    Imagine 5 years from now when all the new fibre needs to be replaced and the Government's already spent all the tax dollars set aside for it.
    Though I suspect from the tone of your post that we disagree on most things government, I happen to agree with you on this one. I just came from a presentation last Wednesday from the American Society of Civil Engineers about the state of our roads, and it is ugly. Like bridges near collapse ugly. Same for sewer and water systems, navigable waterways, dams, railroads and many other public infrastructure items. The ASCE has a simple solution to that - raise gas taxes, but people presently don't like taxes. Or more precisely they don't have confidence that taxes will go to the specific priorities they approved. This while real estate developers essentially rely on free roads, sewers, power lines for their margins on exurban development, and while the increase in miles driven has vastly outstripped the increase in population. Americans are overconsuming roads because the marginal cost of roads to them is a whopping $0.00, and at the same time building up vast deferred maintenance costs. Just like with software development, people like the upfront parts and don't enjoy the maintenance phase. And every time someone builds a new set of houses in a subdivision, they are bringing new obligations to municipalities,counties, states, and the federal government. Unless there's a big shift in the political climate I'm apt to believe that people will not want a new tax to pay for all the routers than need to be upgraded in 5 years, and this will be one more item of infrastructure that sits crumbling under the weight of demands to build yet more new infrastructure.

    This leaves me in a bit of a bind, because I have long believed that Cringely and his friend are right - the main problem with American telecom service is that telcos have a government enforced, infrastructure-based monopoly on the last mile. So as Cringely points out, this makes telcos gatekeepers rather than bidders to provide service. Really what's happened is that telcos have steadily chipped away at their part of the bargain struck with government: we'll give you a monopoly in return for regulating your rates and service and you giving service to everybody (which is now passed on to consumer as an add-on fee). Cringely is right that private capital will not be interested in building freely available infrastructure, so I'd say that part does merit co-op or public investment to create it. What we need to do is let people compete to run that infrastructure, making sure to cultivate competition. That means overruling the telcos and specifically allowing all kinds of different ways to providing access and bandwidth: copper pair, power lines, wireless, ultrasound through water pipes, etc. With luck this will result in a durable competitive market for access as well as bandwidth, without adding yet one more item to the long list of infrastructure improvements the government and taxpayers have deferred.
  • Own it (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Spazmania (174582) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @12:10PM (#15642687) Homepage
    First off, we already own the last mile. That's why its called a "public right of way." Just like a public park, it belongs to all of us. The problem is that our pussy politicians (especially the Republicans) aren't asserting our rights to it. Companies using the right-of-ways are being permitted to tie the associated services with other more expensive and more restrictive services that aren't associated with the right-of-way. Want that to change? Vote Democrat. They're not perfect, but they do believe in actually regulating the companies that consume public resources.

    Frankston points out that we build and finance public infrastructure in a public way using public funds with the goal of benefiting economic, social, and cultural development in our communities. So why not do the same with the Internet, which is an information infrastructure?

    Because:
    a) Networking technology continues to undergo rapid change.
    b) Even the experts don't understand the 50-year requirements very well.

    Public infrastructure projects work OK when the technology is stable and well understood. Like roads and bridges. They're a disasterous sinkhole for cash the rest of the time. That's why the money disappeared. 20 years from now when half the politicians are folks who grew up with the Internet and the networking experts can clearly articulate an infrastructure that with reasonable maintenance will remain appropriate and cost-effective for 50 years, then maybe we can look at it as a government infrastructure project.

    In the mean time, we should assert our rights to the public right-of-ways. The price of access should be that the companies which use it don't get a unilateral choice in how the resulting products are sold.

    The cost per fiber drop, according to Bill's estimate, is $1,000-$1,500 if 40 percent of homes participate.

    There have to be some crazy assumptions behind that. Taking 12 strands for a mile with no stops is $15k in ideal circumstances. In downtown DC its $175/foot. If your ISP is not the phone company then there's about a 90% chance that its nearest office is more than 10 miles away. Even for the best case the numbers don't compute... And that's without considering the cost of maintenance and equipment to light the fiber.

    Fiber works for the phone company because they multiplex it at about a 16:2 ratio within a few hundred yards of your home and then trunk that cable back to an office that's within about 3 miles. Even then they're banking on your purchase of phone, Internet and TV at $150/month to recoup the cost over the next 10 years.

    $1500/customer? That's off by at least an order of magnitude. $1500 might cover the raw cost of the cable itself, but that's about it.

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