LJ Archive

Linux for Suits

DIY Internet Infrastructure

Doc Searls

Issue #155, March 2007

An open-source angle on muni-Net infrastructure build-out.

Although Moore's Law drives up compute power, network speeds languish. One reason I moved to Santa Barbara in 2001 was that Internet connectivity was much better here than in Silicon Valley, where I had lived for the preceding 16 years. Six years later, however, my connection speeds in Santa Barbara are barely any better, and the costs have gone up. Worse, the city appears to be a low-priority region for Verizon and Cox, our local telco/cableco duopoly. Although Verizon is rolling out fiber to homes in dozens of communities around the country, Santa Barbara isn't one of them. And, although Cox is also rolling out higher-speed services, Santa Barbara is smaller and farther away from Cox's Atlanta headquarters than any other markets.

And, we're not alone. The same kind of story is happening in most communities across the US. This is why hundreds of those communities are doing what Linux and open-source developers have done all along: taking matters into their own hands, doing for themselves as individuals and groups what proprietary businesses and industries can't or won't do. They're rolling their own infrastructure.

That's why I've been taking part in a local citizen effort to build infrastructure that the local duopoly can't or won't provide. This has involved lots of meetings and discussions—not only amongst ourselves, but with local businesses, civic leaders, elected representatives, infrastructure (fiber, wireless) deployment contractors and other folks, including cable and phone company people. We want something that works for everybody; a new infrastructural tide that lifts all boats—like Linux did, and still does.

This is why our emphasis is more on fiber than on wireless. We want Net infrastructure that maximizes capacity for the longest possible time, and for the largest number of people and locations—much as we might be doing if the challenge were building roads or reservoirs.

It's still early, and we're pioneering here, as are many other communities. To help gather useful thinking at this pioneering stage, I've put together a FAQ for myself, and for anybody else who wants the benefit of the same thinking. Because much of this thinking is informed by, and modeled on, the successful experiences of the Linux and Open Source movements, I thought I'd share my FAQ draft here.

Bear in mind that this is just thinking out loud at this point. It's provisional. I offer it in hope that it's useful to other folks in other towns who are trying to do the same kind of thing. I also offer it in faith that the smart readers of Linux Journal will help myself and others think and work our way to local Net infrastructure that favors everybody, and not just incumbent carriers.

So here goes.

Q: Why does <your town or region here> need fiber-optic Internet infrastructure?

A: For the same reason it needs roads, water, waste treatment and electricity. The Internet is becoming a “fifth utility”, no less essential than those other four. Fiber-optic cabling is the best form of “pipe” for carrying the Net. It is also the most “green” and has enormous capacity. One fiber optic pair can carry thousands—even millions—of times more data than any form of copper wiring or any form of wireless connection.

Q: Why not do wireless infrastructure instead of fiber?

A: Even wireless needs a fiber backbone. We think it's essential to bring the best connections to everybody. We also can add lots of wireless service on top of fiber infrastructure. Even cities opting for wireless build-outs require fiber backbones. We want to make the Net's maximum capacity available to everybody. This requires bringing fiber connections to homes, businesses, hospitals, libraries, government offices and other fixed locations—or as close as we practically can. After that we can easily add all the wireless or wired coverage we want.

Q: Isn't the Internet just a service we already get from cable or phone companies?

A: No. The Internet is not itself a “service”. It's a means for transporting data between devices anywhere—without regard for the distance between them or the routes between them. It also was designed on “end-to-end” principles, which make the “middle” of the network as transparent, uncomplicated and cost-free as possible.

The Internet is radically different from telephone, cable TV and other networks optimized for a single purpose. It exists to support whatever anybody wants to build on it or use it for. Its purpose is to maximize support for a maximum variety of uses, while minimizing its own intrinsic costs. In this respect, it is a public utility like water, roads, waste treatment and electric power. The Internet cares no more about how you use it than your electric outlets care what you plug in to them or than your water faucet cares about whether you're washing dishes or filling a cup.

Q: But aren't telephone and cable companies utilities as well?

A: Yes, but they are also businesses, and they're designed originally for single purposes. Although the Net today is carried to our homes and businesses by these two businesses, the relationship in the long run is the other way around. Telephony and video used to be analog services. Now they are only two among many other forms of data that the Net is capable of transporting. So in the long run, we need to see telephony and video as two among a countless variety of businesses that are supported by the Net. And, we need to stop seeing the Net as gravy on top of telephone and cable service.

Q: Is Net infrastructure costly to deploy?

A: The Internet itself is not inherently scarce—as are water, electricity and roads. Instead, the Internet was designed as a way to remove distance between every connected device and the people who use those devices. There is no “long distance” to the Internet. Once a device is “on” the Net, it is zero distance from every other device in the world that's also on the Net. That's because the Net was designed so the functional distance between any two keyboards in the world is no greater than the distance between those keyboards and their screens.

Meanwhile, the cost of digging trenches, pulling cable and other expenses is far above zero. But it is also far less than the cost of building roads, water distribution and waste treatment infrastructures. And in the long run, it is just as important as any of those.

Q: Doesn't the Net cost money to maintain?

A: Yes, it does. But the maintenance costs are more like those for roads than for phone or cable TV. Unless a town (or a county) wants to go into the phone and TV businesses, the engineering and maintenance costs do not have to be high. But capable engineers and maintenance workers are required, just as they are for other utilities.

Q: Isn't the Internet service we get from telephone and cable companies good enough? We have e-mail. We can browse the Web. We can do instant messaging. We can search on Google and buy stuff from Amazon.

A: The phone and cable companies deserve credit for offering Internet services and contributing to the expanded reach of the Net. But it is important to understand two things. First, the Net is far more than just an extra service provided by telephone and cable companies—even though that's how those companies sell and bill for it. Second, the Internet is a third-priority offering for both telephone and cable companies. Right now telcos and cablecos are working much harder at getting into each other's core businesses than they are at expanding Internet services. And, the Net is about much more than e-mail, searching and browsing. It is becoming an essential backbone for civilization itself. There are many public and private service needs that can be served only by reliable high-capacity Net infrastructure. Doctors can do diagnostics and even surgery over distances. Public safety services can communicate and share data rapidly. Businesses that deal in graphical imagery, high-quality audio and moving pictures can produce and share their work far more easily. Most important, businesses and civic activities of all kinds can be supported—not only the two incumbent businesses that first brought the Net to our homes.

Q: Doesn't all this threaten telephone and cable companies?

A: It doesn't have to, because there is nothing keeping telephone and cable companies from also going into other businesses that are opened up by a growing Internet. In other words, there are benefits to incumbency other than leveraging original business models.

In fact, the Net offers enormous opportunities to telephone and cable companies—opportunities to provide countless services in addition to their traditional ones. That's because there is no limit to what you can do with the Net. Telephone and cable companies have a head start, both in existing facilities and existing relationships with thousands or millions of customers. Instead of being in one, two or three businesses (the phone, cable and Net “triple-play” businesses they're in now), these companies can offer an infinite variety of value-added services to individuals and companies and organizations that use the Net.

Q: Why do cities and counties need to build out Net infrastructure? Why not let the marketplace take care of it?

A: Unfortunately, the marketplace we have is not a free and open one. Telephone and cable companies are captive to long-standing regulatory environments that are changing very slowly. Also, neither side has shown much interest in putting Net build-out ahead of their core businesses. Both telephone and cable operators have powerful lobbying forces in Washington, DC, and at the state level as well, working to protect their traditional businesses from the “threat” of Internet growth. Giving them exclusive rights to control Internet infrastructure and growth is a guarantee that the going will be very slow.

Q: Doesn't the federal government care?

A:. Not much. Although the Internet was born in the US, neither our federal government nor its protected communications duopoly have shown much interest in the Net's development. Nor has our government paid much attention to how well the Internet supports and sustains economic growth. Other countries—Korea, Japan, Denmark, Netherlands and France, for example—have encouraged Net build-out for most of the last decade. As a result, the US is now 11th in “broadband” penetration. By deciding to leave Net build-out to the monopolists who feel threatened by it, our federal and state governments have assured limits on our economic growth and have reduced our competitiveness in the world marketplace.

Q: How have the carriers crippled our Internet service?

A: The Internet was designed originally as a symmetrical system. That means the “upstream” and “downstream” speeds should be the same. That's the kind of Internet connectivity we find in universities and inside large companies. But it's not what the telephone and cable companies provide to our homes and small businesses. What we get is asymmetrical—much higher downstream than upstream. The reasons are not necessarily bad ones. Most of us consume far more data than we produce. This is especially true when we download large graphical files, watch a YouTube video or listen to the live stream of a radio station over the Net. The carriers have optimized their systems for asymmetries between production and consumption.

The problem is, these asymmetrical lines relegate everybody to a consumer role and prevent us from becoming producers as well. This limitation is compounded by what are called “port blockages”. This is where our phone or cable company prevents us from setting up our own Web server or running our own mail server. Again, they have some good reasons for blocking the ports on our computers that those services could run on. Spammers, for example, can take advantage of open mail server ports on our computers. But these port blockages also prevent all types of uses, including the ability to set up home businesses of many kinds.

So, instead of, say, offering services that aid in the development of small and home businesses, the carriers just shut off possibilities to avoid hassles that might distract focus from their core phone and cable TV businesses.

There is also, in both the telephone and cable businesses, a traditional high-charge orientation toward business customers. If you're a business, they want to charge you a lot more money for the same level of service provided to “consumers” who produce nothing other than a monthly payment. The carriers will talk about providing a higher grade of service for the money, but the costs are often so high that they drive businesses away. As a result, businesses don't take advantage of what the Net has to offer. They buy the lowest-price offering and stick to browsing the Web and doing e-mail.

Q: Isn't local infrastructure build-out a case of government competing with private industry?

A: No. It's a case of citizens finding a way to do what a protected duopoly cannot. What we are doing is also not competitive. We want to open our new fiber infrastructure to use by anybody, including cable and phone companies. We have their interests at heart too. By building out pure Net infrastructure—rather than competing with cable TV and phone systems—we are protecting and supporting their core businesses.

Q: Isn't this different from what we're seeing in other cities that roll out “triple-play” fiber systems?

A: Yes, it is. By just installing the “transport”, and leaving the services up to other parties (including the phone and cable companies), we are doing two things. First, we're saving money by not getting into businesses and facilities that actually cost a lot to start and maintain. Second, we are treating the Net as the simple utility it needs to be. As a city, we know how to maintain roads, water treatment and waste facilities, and so on. We also know how to support businesses rather than compete with them. That's what we are doing here.

Q: What will it cost to bring fiber-optic cabling to homes and businesses?

A: We have estimates of up to $2,500 per “drop”—about the cost of a big flat-screen TV (without the immediate and certain depreciation). But the cost of fiber-optic cabling itself is actually less in most cases than the labor cost of burying it in the ground or hanging it from poles. There is much we can do to drive costs down for the city and to make it easy for citizens to connect to the network as they need it. For example, we can require that conduit and fiber be put in the ground everywhere a trench is dug. We can hang fiber on poles first and work out the individual drops later. We can create a regulatory and procedural environment that encourages citizens and local businesses to build their own neighborhood fiber networks, which we can then connect to our publicly or privately own owned “backbone” whenever they're ready. We would love to create an environment where local businesses do much of the build out and make money in the process.

Q: If you're not selling phone and cable TV services, how are you going to pay back the cost of installing the fiber cabling?

A: We'll have to approach this the same way we approach building out any new public infrastructure—just as we did when we built our water systems, our waste treatment plants, our roads. We need to think creatively about this, but also take advantage of what we already know about building utility infrastructure.

Q: What do you expect will be the economic benefits of this?

A: We can begin to hint at those by looking back at what the Internet has done for our lives, and our economies, over the last ten years or more—and multiplying it by countless citizens and businesses that are finally able to do what they want with a Net infrastructure that truly supports it.

Q: Are there any downsides to building this out?

A: No. And that's the real bottom line.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a Fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

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