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Heavy Backup Weather

Doc Searls

Issue #222, October 2012

Time for a new kind of top-down problem-solving.

A few weeks ago, our neighborhood near Boston experienced a 30-second hurricane. The cause, meteorologists said, was a microburst. Sometimes called “an upside-down tornado”, this one featured 70–80 mile-per-hour winds and knocked down or shredded hundreds of trees in an area about one mile across. Our house shook and our trees thrashed about, but we were spared the worst. Many neighbors weren't so lucky. Not only were trees gone, houses and cars smashed, and lines torn down, but power surged through sections of the grid, blowing out all kinds of electrical gear. One guy I talked to lost his computers and all his backup drives. He was not a happy man.

Later I noticed that two of my external drives appeared to be dead. The folks at the local repair shop said the circuits were fried, but that the drives were fine. So they put the old drives in new enclosures, and no data was lost. Still, I was impressed that a surge could spare two power supply bricks (both converting 120v AC to 12v DC) while passing through and killing the electronics in a hard drive, but not the drives themselves. I'd say “go figure”, but I'd rather point to related problems and opportunities with that other weather system we call “the cloud”—in particular, its boundless supply of relatively secure off-site backup.

That should be great for me, and it's why I use Backblaze (www.backblaze.com) as much as I can, which isn't enough. For backup, you need hearty upstream speeds, and the bandwidth providers mostly don't care. Their big business is in “content delivery”, now: TV 2.0. Typical is our home in California, which has a cable connection from Cox. While it provides up to 30Mbps downstream, the upstream peaks at 4Mbp/s. Two years ago, a Cox official told me the downstream would eventually reach 100Mbp/s, and the upstream about 5Mbp/s. The Boston place has Verizon FiOS, with 25Mbp/s upstream, which is about as good as it gets in the US. But we stay there less and less, and are on the road more and more. In the last week, I've jumped on the Net at two hotels, two houses, three airports and two universities. Connection speeds were sub-minimal in the upstream direction at all but one of those (my own home-base university). Where I'm sitting now, the upstream speed is about 200Kbp/s, over a slow DSL connection.

Meanwhile, I've got about 120GB of fresh photos on the hard drive of my main laptop. I can copy those off to an external drive, but those have proved remarkably flaky, at least in my own experience. I carry two with me, just in case. If the bags they live in are lost or stolen, I'm out of luck. More typically, they simply fail. I have well more than a dozen dead hard drives in drawers and boxes at my two homes. Some are old internal ones. Most are old external ones. I also have about ten old computers as well. Much of my original Linux Journal work (dating to the mid-1990s) is on one of three boxes (one Red Hat, two Debian) in my garage in California. From the late 1980s, I have another box filled with 3.5" floppies that no modern computer (or app) will read. I could make a project out of recovering everything and putting it in one relatively safe and durable place, but that would take more time than I'm willing to spend. What I'd rather do, right now, is point to the problem, and to solutions that won't happen soon, but need to happen eventually.

The problem is television, and it's as old as the Web we know, which dates back to the mid-1990s, when the first ISPs and graphical browsers showed up. In March 1995, John Perry Barlow wrote an essay titled “Death From Above”, which contained this clear-eyed prophesy:

The cable companies and Baby Bells have a model for developing the next phase of telecom infrastructure which, were it applied to the design of physical superhighways, would have us building them with about five thousand lanes in one direction and one lane in the other.

The only more manipulative consumer architecture I've seen is the quarter mile of one-way conveyor belt which sucks the unsuspecting off the Strip in Vegas and drops them into the digestive maze of Caesar's Palace Casino without any return route at all.

Nursing such gloomy metaphors as these, I was encouraged to receive an e-mail message recently from Gordon Bell, one of the Titans of computing, with the cumbersome but evocative subject: line, “Building Cyberspace with One-way Streets - Bad idea? Conspiracy? Short-sightedness? Incompetence?”

In it, he exhorted me and a number of better qualified digerati (including The Media Lab's Nicholas Negroponte and Bellcore Vice President and telecom god Bob Lucky) to put our “bodies in front of the backhoes that are installing asymmetric networks that simply mimic cable TV”.

There followed a passionate argument against what appears to be the default asymmetry and the following vision of a better future: “The distinction and needs between homes and offices will disappear. Also, there needn't be places like information warehouses that are the sole video providers into the network to form new franchises and monopolies. Every home should, in principle, be capable of being a producer or consumer. This needs to be the goal of the information highway.”

Unfortunately, as things stand, it isn't. At least it is in no way the goal of the institutions currently building the more overtly commercial aspects of it. Whether cable companies or telcos, they see the NII as pay-per-view on steroids.

And here we are. Credit where due: speeds have increased through the years, and the asymmetry is less lopsided than JPB's highway metaphor predicted. But for phone and cable companies, which are now the only ISP choices for most of us, upstream is somewhere between afterthought and back-burner. Most cable providers are stopping at 5 or 10Mbp/s. Verizon's fiber-based FiOS is faster, but recently the company said it would cease building out FiOS (www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-tech/post/verizon-ends-satellite-deal-fios-expansion-as-it-partners-with-cable/2011/12/08/gIQAGANrfO_blog.html) and focus instead on its more profitable mobile wireless business. It is also showing signs of getting out of the landline phone business, and landline-based DSL along with it, leaving many communities with the non-choice of a local cable company with no direct competition. Worse, Verizon appears to be doing this willfully (www.dslreports.com/shownews/Verizon-is-Willfully-Driving-DSL-Users-Into-the-Arms-of-Cable-120473), by partnering with cable companies on a spectrum deal for wireless (www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/verizon-wireless-makes-marketing-airwave-deal-with-three-cable-companies/2011/12/02/gIQARvPYMO_story.html). How likely is your local cable monopoly (scrawford.net/blog/the-cable-monopoly-very-short-summary-of-185-pages/1631) to improve its offerings without competition?

So, what can be done?

I think the answer needs to come from the top of the stack, rather than the bottom. No use banging our heads against the walls of obstinate carriers and their captive regulators. Instead let's start doing things with each other, and with the cloud services of the world, that do more than stretch upstream sphincters to the snapping point. We need to show clear benefits to upstream capacity that are at least as good for business as the long-standing carrier ambition of moving television into their pipes. In the next EOF, I'll explore one approach to that. Meanwhile, let's blue-sky some better cloud ideas than the ones we're reading about now.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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