The Case for a Cooperative Internet Service Provider

Background

As the Internet has evolved, new services have challenged the engineering and business assumptions of existing networks. BitTorrent and Comcast, Skype/iPhone and AT&T, Netflix/Level 3 and Comcast are just a few cases in which changing relations among Internet organizations have caused consumer dissatisfaction.

Consumers rightly see the risk in giving ISPs too much power. However, they typically lack insight into the technical and business situations that ISPs confront, for example, routing and peering agreements, making it easy for the actions of ISPs to be seen as Orwellian.

Consumers widely support the position of net neutrality, which maintains that ISPs should not be permitted to change the kind of service provided based on its content. Arguments against net neutrality are not commonly entertained, as though they were indefensible.

What’s interesting is that upon closer inspection, there are reasonable arguments against net neutrality, such as those discussed in a video by Ben Eater and Grand Sanderson. ISPs are in a difficult position. On one hand, they provide services to customers in terms of bandwidths. For instance, you can buy a 50-Mb connection for a fixed monthly cost. On the other hand, the amount of bandwidth usage varies with time, which means that the quality of service delivered to customers is lower during peak usage times.

A further complication to the ISP’s job is that of maintaining relationships with other ISPs. The Internet, despite its name, is not a monolith, but a complex arrangement of organizations whose relationships change dynamically.

Could it be that the problem the Internet is facing is simply the classic tragedy of the commons? We have a common resource which is potentially abused by consumers. It is stewarded by a private entity which is in a compromised position; it cannot practically charge consumers for the consequences of its use. So what it does instead is charge producers.

If the Internet is experiencing such a tragedy, it might benefit from research on ways that the tragedy of the commons has been avoided.

This supports the following hypothesis: Society is better served by a greater investment by communities into the management of Internet services.

Why a Cooperative?

A cooperative is a business democratically controlled by its owner-members. The members might be workers, consumers, or both. In that regard, cooperatives are flexible, but the aspect of democratic control is essential.

Because of this control structure, many cooperatives merge the roles of producer and consumer. This provides a more direct way for the system to account for the conseqeuences of its own activity. Instead of having to charge either data consumers or content producers for the consequences of their usage, it would have Internet users directly responsible for addressing those consequences. Having this responsibility also entrusts them with a degree of power.

Cooperatives are often established to meet a shared need.

An example of this kind of structure is the Park Slope Food Coop in New York City. It formed in order to provide higher quality food at a lower price to members of its community. The most expensive part of running a grocery store is the paid labor. To reduce this cost, each member works a few hours a month. Members work with the same team each time in order to facilitate self-management.

Such a structure distributes responsibility directly; there is no financial transaction required. Running the store is built into the protocol that members must adhere to. This allows the system to optimize for stability and quality rather than profit. The bottom line is a concern (every system has a budget constraint) but the way that it addresses the concern is different.

A Community-Scaled Approach to Telecom

What would a cooperative Internet service provider look like? There are many challenges to a community starting an ISP. ISPs typically require a lot of startup capital. Most seem to be derived from relatively old, large businesses.

ISPs need network infrastructure. Many kinds of infrastructure are possible: buried cable, fiber optics, and wireless are the most widespread, and the most typical in backhaul applications.

One infrastructure technology that is less typical is free-space optics. Free-space optical communication is an optical communication technology that uses light propagating in free space to wirelessly transmit data for telecommunications or computer networking. The technology is useful where other media, such as wire, are impractical due to high costs or other considerations.

The RONJA project in Europe has demonstrated that FSO technology can simplify running an ISP. RONJA transceivers can be produced by hand, allowing hobbyists and grassroots organizations to create network infrastructure that is independent from existing buried cable and not subject to RF regulations. Furthermore, RONJA’s hardware design is open source, so users can adapt the design to their own situations.

Free-space optics provides an opportunity for local, community-managed Internet service. It lowers the barrier to entering the telecommunications market by providing a simple, low-cost, high-bandwidth link between network nodes.

Unfortunately, RONJA production is a bit labor-intensive. One way to reduce the amount of labor is to adapt off-the-shelf networking hardware; use existing electronics and mate it to custom optics. For example, media converters that translate from wired Ethernet to fiber optic media could be connected to an optical collimator. The collimator focuses the high-divergence beam emitted by the optical fiber into a low-divergence beam suitable for free-space propagation.

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