Net Neutrality and breaking Cable’s monopoly on the Internet.

Net neutrality has been a huge topic in the news of late. With Comcast(r), AT&T(r), Google(r) and Netflix(r) as players in any game, with the power of monopolies at stake, with Billions of dollars up for grabs, those with power and money will all be flexing their muscles and spending a great deal of money to defend their piece of the pie, and, to hopefully shave just a bit more of that pie of somebody else’s piece.Image

So now the question is net neutrality. What does “net neutrality” actually mean? Simply put, it means that those who provide the connection to the Internet shouldn’t restrict or hinder the content that an individual user is able to access via that connection. So, if your Cable provider is also your Internet service provider, net neutrality would mean that your cable company shouldn’t restrict access to, for example, Netflix(r).

This brings up an interesting dilemma for cable providers. A growing number of people have become increasingly upset with the content offered on network television – they have discovered that it’s far easier to watch what they want, when they want it, via distribution methods on the Internet, and many have canceled their TV service and opted for an Internet-Only option from their cable provider. The days when Cable TV “also” offered Internet connectivity are coming to an end, and the model is beginning to look more like an Internet provider that “also” offers television.

If we look at things strictly from the point of view of a Cable company that provides Internet services, it sort of makes sense to consider that when users download their television programming from other providers (especially with Comcast’s purchase of NBC), that these companies are actually providing access to the content that is undermining their own business. From a purely business point of view, it’s a model that doesn’t make a great deal of sense! Add to that the fact that Netflix alone accounts for some 33% of ALL Internet traffic here in the United States, and it would seem that Comcast is being required not only to provide access to their competition, but to pay for increases in infrastructure in order to make that even possible. It would seem that this isn’t a very viable business model.

But the problem is that in deciding that a company shouldn’t have to provide access to competing services is a very slippery slope. The problem we have here in the United States is that most homes have but one choice when they are looking for broadband Internet, and that is their cable provider. Years ago, when the Internet was young, the telephone modem was the means of connecting to the Internet – and lots of companies were providing Internet connectivity. AOL, Juno, Compuserve and many bulletin boards had Internet connectivity. If you were a university student, you might have even been able to connect to the Internet via a dial-up connection provided by your school. But in those days, 56Kbps was a very fast connection, and nobody was streaming video, or, for that matter, even much audio. Most computer users of that era remember a time when you could read text as fast as your modem could deliver it.

But in the mid 1980s, dial-up was the best way to get an Internet connection, and there was competition. Then DSL and Cable came along. While at first, these two seemed to compete head-to-head, in the end, it was Cable who was able to provide the best and most consistent service to the most people. DSL has a nasty habit of not working well too far from the central office. And while fiber-optic has the potential bandwidth to easily supplant Cable, the infrastructure costs money, and until somebody comes along who is ready to spend that money and go head to head with the cable companies – they are left with virtual monopolies wherever they happen to be.

So what does that mean for the rest of us who don’t wish to support big business and monopolies? What can those of us who are activists do? Is there a way that we can work together to break the power of monopolies?

If we’re going to break the power of monopolies, it’s important to become somewhat technologically savvy. We can’t fight the monopolies without understanding something of the technology that the corporations are using. Most of us have our hands tied, in part, because we don’t know any better – we presume that “The Internet” is something delivered to us via a cable – for which we each have to pay a fair bit of money. But are there ways that we might work together to avoid being beholden to a single company?

In some areas – in fact, in most urban areas, there is often something that can be done – and which can give groups even more reliable Internet connections. It takes a bit of work and study, but it can be done. In my own home town, we have our local cable company, but in my office, which is only a half-mile from my apartment, I’ve got a fiber connection. I also have access to cable there as well, but the fiber connection is more than fast enough for even multiple video and audio streams. A small collective in my office building is sharing that connection, and we all have high speed Internet for much less than the cost we would be paying via Cable.

If I wanted to share that Internet connection with my home, there are ways to do that as well. There are wi-fi transceivers that will easily make the ½ mile hop from the office to my home.

Ham radio operators have also been doing a great deal of work with the Internet. Because they often are called upon to provide communications when everything else has failed, they actually have digital communication paths that will work even when the Internet disappears. In my own home, where I refuse to pay for cable, even without an Internet connection, I can still receive email via an amateur radio program called Winlink. With this, my computer is connected to a small box called a TNC (Terminal Node Controller), which is connected to a radio. Every now and then, the computer talks to the TNC, and makes a connection to another ham station that is connected to the Internet, and will retrieve email for me. Of course with amateur radio, this can’t be used for anything involving money, but the point is that there are options.

Amateur radio has also been involved in something called “High Speed Multimedia Mesh”, and this could be of real significance to activists. Basically, this involves re-programming some of the older Linksys WRT-54G routers, and allows them to connect to each other automatically. With decent antennas on them, it’s possible to set up a high speed network. This has been used in wilderness races to provide video coverage of the race for distances of a number of miles. For purposes of activism, this could be used to distribute video of an event even if the cell systems and the Internet were shut down.

It seems that activists might do well to study what radio amateurs are actually doing – they use a variety of technology – often inventing their own, to provide communications, wherever it is needed, no matter what might be happening. It is hams who provide communications for the Boston Marathon, and when the bombing occurred, and the cell system was shut down, communications in the area were facilitated as needed, by hams. With Amateur programs like the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, and the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, hams are constantly training and ready for just about any situation that might arise. For we who are activists, and who wish to insure that we can communicate with each other under any circumstance, whether it’s providing access to the Internet for a neighborhood through cooperative use of available services, using a high speed mesh-network to make sure the larger world has access to actual video of an event, hams have already done this, and we can learn from them.

To set up a neighborhood mesh network that can access the Internet, you’ll probably want at least two Internet service providers – if one goes down, the other will likely stay up. You’ll have to learn about things like routing, load-sharing, TCP/IP, how to “flash” your router and a bunch of other things, but you can make it far less expensive for everyone in your group to have Internet access. And until there is real competition for broadband Internet access, this might be one way to work collectively to make the Internet available to more people for less money.

One last note regards the monopoly that cable and satellite companies have over our television viewing. If we wish to break the hold that corporations like Comcast have over us, in this area too, we need to find alternatives. For most people, it would seem that our choices are limited to cable or satellite. But in most areas, a fairly modest antenna will allow you to receive at least one or two – likely more – channels. And often, the other special programming that we want to watch is available on Internet services such as Hulu.

The point of this is that we don’t have to be beholden to large corporate interests we need to do a couple of things – we need to be willing to sacrifice some small measure of convenience, and we need to be willing to learn and adopt technologies that will enable us to become more self-sufficient. We don’t have to submit to the dictates of corporations that we view as unethical; we don’t have to support their practices.

External links:
Wikipedia entry on High Speed Multimedia Mesh (HSMM): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-speed_multimedia_radio

Broadband Hamnet (HSMM) home page: http://www.broadband-hamnet.org/

The American Radio Relay League is the major US organization for hams. If you’d like to consider getting your license, or if you want to learn more about amateur radio, find the ARRL here: http://www.arrl.org

 

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