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writing for godot

Needed: A Real Internet

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Written by Ivars Vilums   
Wednesday, 15 January 2014 06:40
The ruling by federal judges denying the FCC of authority to regulate Internet communication carriers is just one more step on the road to delivering vital infrastructure into the hands of a few wealthy and powerful interests to mine and plunder as they wish. Unless the FCC takes steps to stand up for itself (and get those steps past the courts) It will be a dismal end to the singular phenomena for humanity that the Internet promised to be, at least in the United States. As with free speech, voting power, and so much else essential to people's lives, capital and might have seized control and are subverting it to mercenary and political interests. This is not something new. The Internet has been moving in that direction since its potential started becoming apparent in the late 1990's and powerful interests began restructuring it to their ends. Unless you have the wherewithal and funds to participate fully, the Internet, originally "the network of networks" among peers has become mostly a product delivery service by and for a few large players who have been trying and looking for ways to control and meter what their customers can and cannot access while using their customer's private communications for profit and dominance, with toll booths at every hop. It is this consolidation that has made the surveillance and censorship now rampant throughout the world so easy to accomplish.

It does not need to end there. There are strong and very competent "Open Source" and "Maker" movements thriving throughout the world. Wireless hardware, especially cell phones and wireless routers, owned by users themselves are ubiquitous and all physically capable of communicating with each other. The software they run is designed explicitly to not do so but that can be changed by the owner of the device. With the proper software - an app for cell phones and a firmware change to routers - they can participate and create their own networks, global in scope, with no need or ability for any entity to "own" the network - if you have a cell phone or wifi router you own your own piece of that global network relaying packets as needed for anyone nearby adding to the power of the whole without subscribing or being subject to any agenda or charges.

As anyone who has worked in this area knows, there are many issues and limitations to address to make this so but I can remember the awe and wonder and challenge of participating as an IP node in the Internet as it was with a puny 1200 or even 300 Baud dial-up connection to a tiny 8 MHz PC back in the distant past of the early 1990's when naysayers were having a heyday and AOL and CompuServe boasted about being unperturbed by the nascent, tiny, and techie Internet of the day, calling it a "flash in the pan" that, like CB radio, people would soon tire of and come back to their "real" services. Much has happened since.

There are now 300 megabit radios with built-in routers that can be had for under $50. Around 15 years ago I experimented with Infrared and was able to connect nearby houses with 5 megabit links that I built then for under $10. Although the individual links may be slower than a fiber pipe, the aggregate bandwidth can be huge because there would be so many links covering the geography each carrying part of the load. Instead of a pipe-based point-to-point throughput there is a "sheet" based many-to-many transfer. The real problems are latency and routing. Because the links would be short there would often be many hops involved and each one involves processing and forwarding thereby adding time to geting a message across. Current routing protocols would also need to be modified to work in this new and dynamic environment. It would also be a good time to decentralize other aspects such as the DNS naming system. At first this would make real time two-way voice and video unreasonable, but in 1995 they were considered unreasonable on the Internet of that time. Look at it now.

Small "open" satellites could address some of these constraints allowing for quick long-distance hops. What is needed is a legion of tiny "open" wireless routers in orbit all over the globe. I recently heard of an experiment putting a cell phone into orbit. A supply of these with the same software as their ground counterparts around the globe would do the job and be pretty inexpensive. The whole project could be completed at a cost less than what Facebook payed to buy Instagram.

One can also have very inexpensive "geosynchronous" satellites at far lower altitudes - by putting wireless routers up on tall poles or towers or buildings - no big rockets needed. They won't reach an entire hemisphere but can provide coverage out to 30 miles or so. Instead of satellites I call those "Terralites." There is so much innovation and opportunity possible here!

In addition, if each hop is individually encrypted by their owners and the routing spreads the packets around geographically there would be a huge increase in security - tapping such a network and putting the messages back together becomes extremely difficult if not impossible. The best part is that the hardware to do this exists and is already deployed throughout the world in the form of smart phones and wireless routers, it just needs the right software and the will to accomplish it. Another ten years of work could produce vast improvements on these simple beginnings.

This would provide a base level of service, implementing the "universal service" that the FCC still charges for on your phone bill but has never delivered on (the money just goes to the telcos) available to anyone for the one-time cost of the equipment. There is no reason that it couldn't interconnect with the "metered product delivery" services that Verizon, ATT, Comcast, and others want the Internet to be, and, in fact, would take a load off their systems (and vice versa) while building in "net neutrality" and security into the core of a new "real" Internet owned by everyone while relegating the "old Internet" to being a shopping mall on its periphery.

I challenge the knowledgeable and capable people out there to put in the time and energy to craft and make freely available a new Internet, one that is open, free, secure, and real this time.
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