We need alternative sources of bandwidth just like we need alternative sources of fuel

Tim Wu's new NYT op-ed, "OPEC 2.0," explores the growing carteliztion of bandwidth and its consequences for America, where we already spend nearly as much on bandwidth as we do on heating oil. Tim's got a newish book out about this stuff called Who Controls the Internet?. I've only browsed it so far (way behind on my reading), but it looks like a classic to me.
Like energy, bandwidth is an essential economic input. You can’t run an engine without gas, or a cellphone without bandwidth. Both are also resources controlled by a tight group of producers, whether oil companies and Middle Eastern nations or communications companies like AT&T, Comcast and Vodafone. That’s why, as with energy, we need to develop alternative sources of bandwidth.

Wired connections to the home – cable and telephone lines – are the major way that Americans move information. In the United States and in most of the world, a monopoly or duopoly controls the pipes that supply homes with information. These companies, primarily phone and cable companies, have a natural interest in controlling supply to maintain price levels and extract maximum profit from their investments – similar to how OPEC sets production quotas to guarantee high prices.

But just as with oil, there are alternatives. Amsterdam and some cities in Utah have deployed their own fiber to carry bandwidth as a public utility. A future possibility is to buy your own fiber, the way you might buy a solar panel for your home.

Link (Thanks, Cat!)


  1. As I said the other day:
    July 25, 2008 12:45am

    why do ISPs, backbone and fiber companies refuse to build? Money obviously. What is the smallest transaction that current economies of scale permit?
    Ten bucks? One dollar? A dime? Why aren’t we already at the fraction of a cent level for profitable transactions? The processing power continues to increase, the cost decreases, the bottle neck is the transmission…Finally got around to Rainbows End. Myriads of fractions of a penny in affiliance groups adding up by virtue of universal connectivity and essentially free unlimited processing power. Obviously the MAFIAA,Hollywood and government in general fear loss of control which would happen if they are not he ones to sit on top of all these tiny salami slice transactions.. so they conspire deliberately and unknowingly with transmission corporations to retard the development of the massive, ubiquitous fiber the new economy needs.

  2. I would complain that a spectrum reserve would just end up as the “I need to get re-elected reserve” the same as the oil one. But I can’t imagine that a sudden flood of communication is what incumbents really want pre-election.

    *scratches head*

  3. and yet the moment any city thinks about trying to develop their own say sity wide wifi, companies who never intended in building their own due to cost SUE to make sure it never happens because they won’t be able to compete. Still none of this matters because unless one can make a open access backbone your always going to have to pay to the same people to have the world access you and you access the world.

  4. wow. i spent an hour thinking about this last night. at this point in my life i cannot live without the internet, but that is sort of what i do. at some point the web is going to be such a party of society for even rural areas off the grid at the moment. affordable internet should be a right provided to everyone and the only way that will happen is if we come up with a way to take the internet out of the tubes.

  5. What would it take to bring OLPC-type mesh networking to the ubiquitous home wifi router?
    Right now I can see almost 20 other wireless networks- if they were meshed together, I think we could move data around the apartment building pretty well. If some of the ones on the periphery could mesh with the buildings across the parking lot and the complexes across the street, we could get dense urban neighborhoods reasonably well connected. Connecting further than that gets trickier, but some high gain wifi antennas or freespace optics could be used for ranges up to a few km (not to mention conventional connections like cable or fiber tying in here and there).
    Admittedly, this may not be super fast, but it could at least be a cheap/free alternative/supplement for monopolized high speed service, and also harder to censor/control.

  6. I say mesh networks for the people. I have a router, you have a router, we all have routers and pretty soon we have a nice network free of central control. Hey, we might see the return of FidoNet. The ISPs can then pile on all sorts of clag onto their their networks and vie for our custom, but it’ll just be stuff like TV and shopping. Meanwhile, the local meshes will be where the cool stuff is, moving encrypted at ever-increasingly huge speeds over the air.

  7. I agree and have said the only way for the internet to remain free as in speech, will be for it to go mesh. There is no way with the backbone controlled by mega corporations who are nothing but the NSA’s ho of the week that freedom will be able to continue online.

  8. To repeat myself: Screw ’em all. Let’s make our own internet.

    I’ve recently been wondering how much it would cost to run a length of fiber-optic cable from my house to a fiber-optic-wanting tech-savvy neighbour’s.

    I live on a 25×100 ft half-lot. Figuring the nearest FOWTS neighbour lives 3 lots away, I’d say we’d need about 300 ft of cable. (My next-door neighbour is only 10 ft away, but that’s not exactly typical.) Nearest cable price I can figure is around $400; figuring other equipment and installation would be another $400; say throw in $200 toward getting that hooked up to the outside world somehow; say $500 for a dedicated server from standard equipment.

    OK, $1500 per household for our own internet. Spread out over 10 years, $15 ($12.50 + inevitable extra charges and complications) per month. Price going down as density goes up. Add some means for people to connect via Wi-Fi.

    I don’t know – could we handle a second internet consisting solely of our neighbours? (Would it spark more block parties? Romance? Stalking? Feuds?) How long would it take to connect to the Internet-At-Large, or even to the next block? To the next city? How much of a fuss would the ISPs kick up? Who would organize and administrate it? Would we remain on the Internet-At-Large via DSL and Cable while it took hold? Who would have the patience for this?

    Low-cost high-bandwidth Internet HAS to come from somewhere. The future requires it and we can’t afford to continue to be hit with the fees that are out there now.

  9. For those proposing a mesh network idea – where does the access to the net originate? The mesh can spread it but doesn’t it start somewhere with an ISP? And the idea of buying your own fiber doesn’t work well unless you’re in a reasonably densely populated area with a short connection. And a connection to what exactly? Other fiber that’s provided by an ISP? Neither of these is really solving the problem. Now if satellite technology for the net were better/cheaper we might be getting somewhere. Use gov’t/tax dollars to put up the array of satellites and it doesn’t matter where you are to be able to connect.

  10. welcome my children to the First, One True Web Church. With our tax free status and guaranteed-by-right access, we will form our own Holy Network.(I get ten percent).

  11. I’ve already made my wifi router an open access point, and named it Parasite.net. I also leave my XO running all the time when I’m home just in case someone wants to mesh.

  12. Just to clarify, I was talking more about a neighbourhood intranet that would expand in a decentralized sort of way in urban environments, coexisting with and eventually, possibly, replacing the existing ISP-based Internet. (Like the original Internet – with only a few users, but with newer, better, cheaper equipment, and faster connections.)

    Less-dense areas are probably better off cost-wise with existing connections. T1 cable is much less expensive and easier to connect than Fiber-Optic, however. $5000/mile?

  13. Never Forget the FIDOnet:

    Before the Internet, Billions of Bedroom BBS Boards phoned each other and swapped bundles of data autonamatically.

    Emails to Australia was 6 days but it worked and it was owned and controlled by the users who made temporary connections over copper phone lines with 300K and 1200K baud modems, free local US calls computer to computer.

    Controlling the phone network was well understood then so Phreaks stacking Trunks to costlessly span the globe.

    It was the public network before they let us play on the internet.

    Cable and DSL are firmly tied to a person who they can blame for all the trouble at that IP.

    Never forgets teh network was ours before they let us on theirs and BBS culture remains the dominant root of all net memes.


    The only consequence of outlawing something a lot of folk do, is making a lot of outlaws and making the activity all the more desirable.
    And teh new super federal cops get paid for noob harvesting.
    rinse and repeat

    When I first saw the Internet I foolishly thought wow now everyone will have access to pretty much any information without any cost, this would be the heralded golden age of Aquarius, the water carrier, the network transport.
    Society is but shared culture.

    The right to know is perhaps very very fundamental to becoming human.

  14. @themindfantastic (#4): Check out USI Wireless, Minneapolis’ wifi, for a very interesting, still developing city-wide wifi system that seems to be working (I sure hope). It does compete with cable and DSL services here but does so pretty favorably (1.5 Mbps for about $30 per month, higher speeds available). The rollout had a few glitches, but they’ve been working through them. Now it covers nearly all 60 square miles of my little town.
    I love it. Yeah!
    For lots of good local perspective on the process, including the very important issues of “digital inclusion” for all residents, check out my friend Peter Fleck’s blog.

  15. I believe that Internet II addresses the issue of bandwidth. Infrastructure is dependant on private and public investment. Here in Oakland County, MI, our WIFI project just died after years of planning. Not enough money from investors and not enough people who want one more tax. When TV goes digital and more bandwidth is opened up in the US, then we’ll see how fast our phones’ data flow is. Right now I’m hard pressed to use my phone’s web access or TV—too slow still.

  16. This morning I woke up thinking about this issue for no reason. Usually that’s a bad sign. Communication has become a hugely expensive thing. Cable typically costs $1K/year (But not to me. We’re not hooked up). Internet around $600/yr for us (I think). My cell phone that never rings cost me $900 for the last 12 months. Those are all costs that didn’t exist when I was a teenager. ATT just expressed the desire to be my TV provider through my DSL for $80/month as if I’d pay for the dreck that masquerades as programming, much less commercials.
    Very little of that qualifies as actual ‘need’. I need an internet connection to do my work. I don’t care if I have a cell phone. It’s a convenience I could do without. I’m living proof that it’s possible to survive without ever looking at a television broadcast.
    I suppose it’s desirable to find alternate ways to provide bandwidth for people who want to be entertained, but characterizing the situation as a stranglehold by a few providers who have us where they want us ignores the fact that the majority of bandwidth is tied up in discretionary uses that are subject to cost/benefit relative to other forms of entertainment. Cut it off or raise the price and nobody will starve. Of course they’ll keep raising the price to maximize profit – and wouldn’t we shareholders expect them to? – but there’s always a limit to what the market will bear.
    That said, there are still far too many areas with too little competition in Cable. I say give them a dose of free market competition and let the price and quality improve. That system is far too mature to still be running under the limited competition arrangement designed for effective infrastructure development.

  17. “I’ve only browsed it so far (way behind on my reading), but it looks like a classic to me.”

    Best book review EVER.

  18. Meraki mesh routers. http://meraki.com/

    Also notice their project to turn San Francisco into a ‘free net’ zone.

    It looks like a breeze to setup. Only problem from the freedom standpoint is that you do administration through their central web site.

  19. @ 18 Ken Hansen

    I know it’s not quite the same, but it’s a start.
    There are a couple of people in my neighborhood that discovered that I’m open, and during the day
    and on nice evenings I can see people sitting on the hill across the street from my house using my
    access point (I’ve checked my connections and see them there).

    Eventually I’d like to build a mesh router system
    like the ones in ‘Someone comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town’ and set that up – and once I’ve got it working I’ll try and get my brother to put one in his store in Kensington Market (Paradise Bound used records and books). Of course bridging the gap from there to my place may be difficult.

  20. A few years ago, cable belonged to the municipalities in the Flanders region of Belgium. In their effort to drive the region towards a knowledge-oriented economy, forward-looking politicians created a public-private project called Telenet; and sold the entire cable infrastructure to this company.

    Now, the municipalities hold a mere 3.5% of the shares of Telenet (the majority – 52% – residing in the hands of Libery Global, a US-based investment fund), and the people the forward-looking politicians represented are now paying through their noses for a broadband service that is third-grade compared to non-monopolist cable broadband services in the neighbouring countries.

    Reastically, I think I’ll have to wait another 20 years before someone over here sees the light and decides to make the cable infrastructure public property again.

  21. We need alternative sources of bandwidth like we need alternate sources of zucchini. If there isn’t enough bandwidth, someone is going to offer more. If there is too much bandwidth, one or more companies will collapse.

    Why someone needs to write a book on the topic of supply and demand on a commodity as easy to produce as internet connectivity is beyond me (not really – there are always liberal gripers trying to masquerade as new age technology prophets).

    This sounds like another “big business” gripe novella.

    Thane Eichenauer
    Candidate for congress, AZ CD 1

  22. @30, you seem wilfully naive about the influence of cartels, monopolies, and mafia. Supply and demand does not explain all of economics.

  23. Interesting post and conversation.

    Probably, also, the first time Amsterdam and Utah have ever been used as concurrent nouns.

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