For a while now, PBS’s Robert X. Cringely has been grappling with net neutrality issues in a series of articles at PBS. His latest article, which a number of readers have emailed me about, proposes a novel idea for solving the net neutrality issue altogether: co-operatively owned last-mile fiber.
The basic suggestion is that neighborhoods and homeowner associations could take out a loan to cover the costs of laying fiber to every home in the neighborhood. The numbers work out to be much cheaper than the current going rate for either cable or DSL. Futhermore, not only would you get access to a huge pipe, but nobody could tell you what to do with the bits that were moving over it. If you want to run a server, run a server. If you want to use Bittorrent, use Bittorrent.
I think the idea is fantastic, mainly because it approximates what the South Korean government is already doing for its citizens. Of course, in America you could never do on a national scale what the South Koreans have done. It would be politically impossible. Not only would the telcos pull out all the stops to oppose a nationwide, publicly funded broadband rollout, but Big Content would fight it tooth and nail, as well. (I’m sure the *AA would be appalled at the thought of all those fat, fat fiber pipes, with all that digital media just streaming over them from house to house. Static IPs might make lawsuits easier, though.)
At any rate, there are a few problems with this idea that should be pointed out. The most obvious one is maintenance. When your Internet connection goes out, there’s no Comcast guy that can drop by and maybe nap on your couch for a bit. This isn’t that big of a deal, though, because I’m sure that an industry of private contractors would emerge to handle this sort of thing.
The bigger limitation of Cringley’s plan is that it doesn’t offer much to transient populations, like renters in urban areas. Furthermore, African Americans, who as a population have a significantly lower rate of home ownership than whites, would see the emergence of a “bandwidth gap” to go with the home ownership and the wage gaps.
None of the problems pointed out above should put anyone off the idea of co-operatively owned last mile infrastructure, though. Cringely’s idea (or rather, Bob Frankston’s idea, which Cringely relates) should be viewed not as a silver bullet but as one solution to the last mile problem among many.
I think it’s likely that some form of wireless, like ultrawideband (UWB) mesh networks, will turn out to be the ideal last mile solution for urban areas—especially for renter populations. UWB’s combination of high bandwidth, low power, non-interference, and ability to pass through walls easily makes it perfectly suited to densely populated urban areas. And unlike fiber, the renter’s UWB hardware can move with him.