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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 precipitated 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.

So-called net neutrality is a position widely supported by consumers, and arguments against net neutrality are often hastily dismissed. Yet the opposing arguments reveal the structure of the Internet: not a monolith, despite its name, but a complex arrangement of relationships between organizations that takes work to sustain. The Internet is therefore a common resource that is susceptible to the tragedy of the commons.

Research has documented ways that the tragedy of the commons has been avoided, supporting the following hypothesis: Society is better served by a greater investment by communities into the management of Internet services, not necessarily net neutrality or federal regulation.

A Community-Scaled Approach to Telecommunications

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 lowers the barrier to entry to the Internet service provider market. 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.

Free-space optics creates a new 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.

Off-the-shelf networking hardware can be adapted to the purpose of free-space optics. Ethernet signals from network interfaces are converted into fiber-optic signals by means of a media converter. Optical fibers can be coupled to free-space with a low-cost optical collimator.

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