Friday, July 25, 2008

What If You Could Own Your Internet Connection?

When it comes to figuring out who was power over the internet, the question inevitably boils down to the issue of ownership. For example, who can censor your writings, photos, or videos? The company that owns the servers. Who sets the rules for behavior? The company that owns the website. Who can cut off your internet access? Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) who controls the connection between your home and the rest of cyberspace.

Essentially, the current internet is one where private companies own most of the cyber infrastructure, and the rest of us mortal humans simply rent the use of their property - paying for it one way or another, whether through a monthly subscription fee or through subjecting ourselves to a neverending barrage of ceaseless advertising.

But Google's Public Policy Blog asks: What if you could own your own internet connection?

It may sound strange, and it's certainly not what we're used to. Today we have a "carrier-centered" model; phone and cable companies spend billions to build, operate, and own the "last-mile" connection -- the copper, cable, or fiber wires that come into your house. Individual consumers then pay for particular services, like phone service or Internet access.

In turn, we tend to think about broadband deployment in carrier-centric ways. If we want to see super-fast fiber connections rolled out to consumers, the main question appears to be whether carriers have appropriate incentives to invest.

But there's no law of nature that says this is the only possible model. Many businesses, governments, universities, and other entities already own their own fiber connections, rather than leasing access to lines. It may also be possible to find ways for consumers to purchase their own last-mile strands of fiber...

This may all sound rather abstract, but a trial experiment in Ottawa, Canada is trying out the consumer-owned model for a downtown neighborhood of about 400 homes. A specialized construction company is already rolling out fiber to every home, and it will recoup its investment from individual homeowners who will pay to own fiber strands outright, as well as to maintain the fiber over time. The fiber terminates at a service provider neutral facility, meaning that any ISP can pay a fee to put its networking equipment there and offer to provide users with Internet access. Notably, the project is entirely privately funded. (Although some schools and government departments are lined up to buy their own strands of fiber, just like homeowners.)

Now before you get all excited and fantasize about dragging some fiber optic cables across your front lawn to tie it around the nearest telephone pole, consider that the cost of doing so is still prohibitive. Google estimates it to run between $1100 to $2700 per household. Plus, it's pretty tough to imagine the phone or cable companies just simply allowing you to connect to their lines. Inevitably, we're going to have to pay for that privilege as well.

Nevertheless, as far as power politics go, any macro shift in infrastructure ownership is truly a shift in the political structure of the internet itself. As this space has argued before, shifting ownership of the network from a few elite corporations to the masses would do well to serve both democracy and capitalism. Close your eyes and just imagine how differently the internet would evolve if individuals ran their own websites on open source Apache servers from their home PCs, formed co-ops to negotiate internet service agreements (essentially becoming their own ISPs), and developed free WiFi hotspots rather than used the cable and DSL networks, because, after all, the public owns the airwaves. People would be able to create their own rules, rather than having them imposed from an outside authority.

Come to think of it, maybe I will get ready to drag some fiber optic cables across my front lawn, after all.


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