By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
In our previous post, we looked at the timing of FCC Chair Pai’s rollback of net neutrality. In this post, I want to look at technical work-arounds that can preserve net neutrality for some parts of the Internet. (As we shall see, the technical aspects are interesting and even beautiful, but institutional and political aspects are just as important, perhaps more so.) First, I’ll look at the solution of having tech giants like Google create their own ISP, one which maintains net neutrality, and build or buy enough broadband to cover the United States. Then, I’ll look at municipal broadband as proven out in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Finally, I’ll look at “mesh networks,” which try to eliminate the gatekeeping function of ISPs entirely, by eliminating ISPs.
Have the Tech Giants Fund or Build Out a Parallel, “Net Neutral” ISP
This solution to the strangulation of net neutrality in the coils of the ISP has been proposed in Bloomberg, as I suppose it would be:
The plan to end net neutrality is also a major threat to companies that do business on the internet. This is because internet service providers could block or limit access to certain sites altogether. For example, they could cut off access to Netflix and instead sell entertainment streaming services of their own. (Sound crazy? In 2014, Netflix paid Comcast to stop a slowdown of its site.) That’s why members of the Internet Association — companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Uber, Netflix, Airbnb and eBay — support net neutrality.
. Google Fiber could build out its existing services nationwide with funding from these other companies who have a huge interest in protecting open access to the net. Even if the effort is costly, it would be less expensive than the potential alternative of customers being unable to access their sites.
Well and good, I suppose, unless Google starts throttling content all on its own, which through its search monopoly it’s already doing. But do the members of the Internet Association really have all that much incentive to protect net neutrality any more? From another Bloomberg article:
Why Netflix Was Less Outspoken on Net Neutrality This Time
Netflix Inc., a champion for net neutrality regulations three years ago during Washington’s last big battle on the topic, has been less outspoken this year as the rules head for the chopping block.
One reason: the Los Gatos, California-based company that started out lending movie DVDs by mail has grown into a $12 billion online video provider that doesn’t need the rules as much as it once did. And broadband providers need its 53 million U.S. subscribers and exclusive movies and TV series such as “The Crown” and “Stranger Things” in order to meet consumers’ expectations.
And their behavior in the 2017 net neutrality battle differed significantly from their behavior in 2015:
Why Netflix Was Less Outspoken on Net Neutrality This Time
Representatives of the online video company reached out with visits or telephone calls to FCC officials more than a dozen times in months leading to the 2015 vote, according to disclosure filings.
This year, by contrast, the company offered two filings, and FCC records don’t show any visits since Pai proposed the rules in April.
Of course, Neflix does offer assurances:
“Although there are other companies for whom this is a bigger business issue today [nice spin!], we continue to support net neutrality protections so that the next Netflix has a fair shot at going the distance,” Netflix said in its statement.
But how do Neflix’s shareholders feel about giving “the next Netflix” “a fair shot”?
I can see this proposal, if indeed the members of the Internet Association bestir themselves to support it, as being no worse than the present, and certainly better than the dystopian alternative proposed by FCC Chair Pai. But at best we are left in the hands of giant monopolies with every incentive to extract as much rent from us as they can.
Have Cities and Towns Build Municipal Broadband
A more attractive — and certainly feasible and proven — option is municipal broadband (framed by some as a public option for the Internet). The Intercept explains:
It may sound radical but it’s not unheard of. Today, around 185 communities in the United States offer some form of public broadband service. Because these services are controlled by public entities, they are also accountable to the public — a perk that anybody who has tried to get a broadband company on the phone can appreciate. (In November, residents of Fort Collins, Colorado, rejected an industry fear-mongering attempt and voted to authorize the creation of a citywide broadband network.)
Chattanooga is the poster child for municipal broadband, and coverage is universally laudatory. Motherboard is typical:
The first thing you see at the Chattanooga airport is a giant sign that says “Welcome to Gig City.” There are advertisements and flyers and billboards for the Gig in the city’s public parks. The city’s largest building is dedicated to the Gig. Years before Google Fiber, Chattanooga was the first city in the United States to have a citywide gigabit-per-second fiber internet network. And the city’s government built it itself.
An independent study published by University of Tennessee last year noted that EPB’s network could be directly tied to the creation of between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and said that the economic benefits for the city have been roughly $1 billion over the course of the last five years.
(Correlation is not causality, but Hamilton County, Tennessee, where Chattanooga is located, has the second lowest death rate from opioids in the state, although many counties have unreliable figures.)
“The Gig” (both senses, obviously) was implemented by Chattanooga’s public power utility. From The Nation:
Funded in part by a $111 million federal stimulus grant [thanks, Obama] and maintained by the Electric Power Board (EPB), Chattanooga’s public electric utility, the Gig’s ambitions feel more collectivist—and more fundamental—than the superficial “disruption” on offer from private-sector techno-utopians.
Working through the EPB was important both technically and institutionally. More from The Nation:
One significant advantage that the EPB had over these public-private partnerships was a preexisting electrical grid. In addition to creating compounded benefits through the efficiency of the “smart grid,” this infrastructure gave the utility a reason, and a roadmap, to connect an entire service area.
But even more importantly, . As a municipally owned utility, it can act in the interests of its community and not simply to enrich its investors.
And when Chair Pai’s order destroying Net Neutrality came out, EPB immediately re-affirmed its commitment — being, again, responsible to the public and under democratic control, what a concept.
The same logic applies to rural areas as well. From Yes Magazine:
How Internet Co-ops Can Protect Us From Net Neutrality Rollbacks
In 2011, brand new fiber optic cables lit up for the first time across the forested terrain of the Ozarks and up and down the farmlands of central Missouri.
Here among the hickories and red oaks, you might expect to be in the land that the internet forgot. That’s what it could have been, had residents not decided to stop waiting on large for-profit telecommunications companies. They built their own internet instead.
They turned to their electric utility for a solution, and Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, established in 1939 to bring power to the region’s farms, answered the call….
And Yes Magazine concludes:
These locally owned networks are poised to do what federal and state governments and the marketplace couldn’t. One, they can bring affordable access to fast internet to anyone, narrowing the digital divide that deepens individual and regional socioeconomic disparities.
Two, these small operators can protect open internet access from the handful of large ISPs that stand to pocket the profits from net neutrality rollbacks that the Trump administration announced Nov. 21. That’s according to Christopher Mitchell, who is the director of Community Broadband Projects, a project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Mitchell, who has been tracking and advocating community-owned broadband networks for a decade, hopes that this will be the moment when people rebel against the administration’s attack on net neutrality and expand rural cooperative and municipal ISPs.
Here also we have, in addition to the technical aspects that an electric utility can handle well, the concept of using government to deliver public goods, this time through the rural co-operative movement.
Despite, or rather because, municipal broadband has been so successful and accepted by users, the giant ISP monopolies have brought political pressure to bear against it. Motherboard:
Thing is—it’s no secret that most of the 20 states that have put limits on the creation of locally owned fiber networks have done so under the pressure of big telecom company lobbyists, who have increasingly tried to exert their influence on state and even local levels.
Through an organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council, telecom companies have sent “model legislation” (read: laws written by big telecom) to dozens of states. In North Carolina, a law bans Wilson from expanding its successful fiber service to neighboring areas. When was this law passed? And how? By telecom-backed state lawmakers who received a ready-made law written by telecom-paid lawyers.
Moreover, FCC chair Pai’s Order pre-empts state laws:
In addition to ditching its own net neutrality rules, the Federal Communications Commission also plans to tell state and local governments that they cannot impose local laws regulating broadband service.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposed order finds that state and local laws must be preempted if they conflict with the US government’s policy of deregulating broadband Internet service, FCC officials said.
Pai’s staff said that states and other localities do not have jurisdiction over broadband because it is an interstate service and that it would subvert federal policy for states and localities to impose their own rules.
That sounds like lawsuit material, to me, “state’s rights” apparently being very important in some contexts, but not in others. Perhaps injunction-worthy? Tennessee, unfortunately, is a solid Republican state, and Hamilton County went for Trump by 20 points. But perhaps some other municipal broadband provider would be willing to step up.
Have Techies Build Mesh Networks
Both the corporate, parallel, “net neutral” ISP proposal and municipal broadband approaches are fundamentally conservative, in that they rely on existing institutions and the existing Internet architecture; both are “back to the future” rollbacks of Pai’s rule. Mesh networks are radical. From Eileen Guo at Inverse Innovation:
When we access the internet via an ISP, we are likely connecting via broadband, which is literally [“literally” is correctly used, here] a giant cable that connects our ISP to top-level internet exchanges. In other words, the ISP acts as the central gatekeeper that ultimately controls our point of online access.
Mesh networks, on the other hand, connect devices directly to each other. Rather than going through a central point, mesh networks allow for how we connect to automatically reconfigure according to the availability and proximity of bandwidth and storage.
Since they are decentralized, the only way to shut down or otherwise disrupt a mesh network is to shut down every node in the network. This makes them much more resilient to interference or other disturbances.
One of the most sophisticated mesh wireless networks is Guifi.net, a community network in Spain that has grown from a single node in 2004 to more than 30,000 in 2016. It has spawned the creation of local ISPs that connect its users to fiber Internet.
Today’s Internet architecture, then, is strongly heirarchical; there are, globally (if I have the jargon correct) a little over 80 “top-level internet exchanges.” Below them are the ISPs, of which there are (quite) approximately 35, and of those “gatekeepers” the AT&Ts, Charters, Comcasts, and Verizons of this world dominate. I connect my computer to my home modem to my home router, which connects to Time-Warner, which connects to the top-level, and from thence (at least for today) to the URL that is my goal. But what if my router could talk to my neighbor’s router? I wouldn’t need Time-Warner at all, would I? Net neutrality, then, would fall out of the network architecture, in which the gatekeeping function of the ISPs is eliminated by the simple expedient of eliminating the ISPs.
Now, the visionary, even utopian way to think about the mesh would be that every “device” could connect to any other, and traffic would move from my computer to my router to my neighbor’s toaster to another neighbor’s electric refrigerator, and so on. (And if there were enough devices “enmeshed,” performance would be OK, if not video-quality.) Of course, that’s Internet of
Shit Things territory, showing that there’s such a fine line between visionary and delusional. So let’s not generalize for all devices, and think only of routers. Here is what the NYCMesh (handy map) has to say about those routers. From the FAQ:
Can I use my own different router?
No, the router we currently support and recommend for building-to-building is the Ubiquiti NanoStation M5. For supernode connections you will need a LiteBeamAC or NanoBeamAC router. Our download page has our firmware for the NanoStation and links to buy. We are working on supporting other routers.
TP-Link have locked down some of their routers, and others are not supported well by OpenWrt, so we unfortunately are looking at other options for indoor routers at the moment.
What software/firmware do you use?
We are using an OpenWrt package made by qMp. This uses the BMX6 mesh protocol. We have added tinc tunneling so a router can mesh over the internet when out of range using a secure virtual private network (VPN).
Our point-to-point connections use factory firmware such as AirOS. The is running Linux with Quagga and BGP. For network monitoring we use Nagios and Icinga2.
Fortunately for the person who doesn’t want to make an unpaid career of configuring routers to get on the Internet, NYCMesh has a solution. From Eileen Guo:
The easiest thing to do is to join an existing network, like NYC Mesh, which sells configured routers at its monthly meet-ups.
Which makes sense, but it also means that the institutional aspect, as with municipal broadband, is just as important as the technical one; you need an “existing network” — I think, back in the day, we would have called it a “user group” — that is of sufficient scale and savviness to configure and supply the routers to members.
There is at least one fly in the ointment — or, I suppose, the screen door — that being an answer to the question: “Surely, with mesh networks, the Internet is not an interconnected network of toasters?” And the answer is no, it’s not; you need a “supernode” (helpfully underlined above) to connect your mesh network to the top level exchanges of the Internet. (The Internet thus returns to something much closer to its original vision as a “network of networks.”) And for a supernode you must pay. Once again from Eileen Guo:
NYC Mesh volunteer Brian Hall tells Inverse the organization only launched its first supernode in 2016, after over a year of negotiations. The organization found a fiscal sponsor to accept grants and donations, and negotiated for a donated internet exchange connection, “transit”, as well as Internet bandwidth.
Still, the costs are not insignificant. “Each supernode costs about $5,000 to install and $1,000 per month to maintain,” Hall tells Inverse.
But all of this has paid off. Today, the downtown Manhattan supernode has 15 buildings connected directly to it, allowing them to access the Internet via super high speeds — without ISPs. They’re hoping to keep Internet access free through a mixture of grants, donations, and subscriptions. “Individual donations are almost covering costs at the moment,” Hall says.
Certainly an impressive achievement and a real win.
(I haven’t had time to go into another solution, which would be to nationalize the Internet entirely (see, e.g, here and here.) These solutions are not necessarily mutually exclusive. There’s no reason, for example, why the Internet Association shouldn’t decide to massively scale up Google Fibre as an ISP that maintains net neutrality. That doesn’t necessarily conflict with municipal broadband, except in the unlikelyMR SUBLIMINAL Snort! event that Google decides to throw its monopoly muscle around. And those two solutions don’t necessarily work against mesh networks, except in the as-unlikely-as-before event that both Google and the municipal ISPs decide to defend the ISP business model against competition, by (say) imposing onerous regulatory requirements on it. As always with problems framed as “technical,” the political and institutional aspects are the nost complex and interesting.
 The ISP opponents of the Fort Collins measure spent $1 million to defeat it; the proponents, $15,000; the measure won with 57% of the vote.
 Listening, Democrats?
 From Co-Mo’s history page (and I’m leaving out one or two twists and turns):
In the mid-1930s, America was in crisis. The Great Depression had ravaged the nation, obliterating family fortunes and turning out countless unemployed and starved citizens. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a plan — a New Deal — to address the deepening crisis, and part of it hinged on increased productivity in the nation’s heartland. If rural people had electricity, Roosevelt reasoned, their farms would be more productive. This would lead to more jobs and a lessening of America’s pain.
So he created the Rural Electrification Administration — the REA — as a new government entity and tasked it with providing low-interest loans to investor owned utilities to encourage them to stretch out their lines from middle America’s cities into the countryside.
Roosevelt’s initial plan was a failure…. [But farmers] inquired of the Roosevelt administration: Would those low-interest loans be available to us if we worked to start electric cooperatives, a business model that did not depend on making profit but rather whose sole aim was to provide the service to those who could use it.
The answer was “yes.”
The leaders of the rural electrification movement in Cooper, Cole, Moniteau and Morgan counties jumped at the opportunity. They formed Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, the name coming from the first two letters of each of the four original counties, and within the next two weeks had an allocation of $342,000 to begin construction on the first lines.
“Two weeks.” I wonder what it’s like to live in a country with a government that actually functions on behalf of its citizens? It must be quite something.
 Distributing mesh network routers would be a useful thing for DSA to do, since it’s a more complicated version of fixing brakelights. They could simply (ha) replicate whatever process NYCMesh has, and make it available to their 30,000+ members in their 160+ chapters. Focusing on “underserved” “communities” of course.
 Hacker News has a good thread of skeptical questions like that one.
APPENDIX I What About Gaming and Gamers?
If you think EA is evil, wait till Comcast, Spectrum, Charter, AT&T, and Verizon start sticking it to you. Loot boxes will be a walk in the park compared to the extra charges and hoops you’ll have to jump through to enjoy gaming online. Imagine that you can only play games online from certain publishers without paying extra. That’s the fate that awaits us. Under Pai’s plan, Activision, EA, Valve, or whoever can pay an ISP for preferential treatment. That treatment doesn’t have to mean they just get faster connections either; it can mean their competition gets throttled.
Soon you may have to pay extra to your ISP per month to open the ports on your connection to even let you connect to Steam, Origin, Uplay, Xbox Live, PSN, and other gaming services. You might have to deal with a gaming traffic allotment you have to refill with cash. For those that were on the internet in the 1990s, this might be familiar. Remember when you had to pay for dial-up by the hour? We could be heading back to that same concept.
Without Title II protections ISPs can sniff your traffic and block or throttle whatever they want, and you’ll be stuck unless you want to pay more. [so we’re not the only ones who have concerns], which will make online gaming the least of our worries.
(For the sake of the argument, I’m going to assume that GamerGate is not a proxy for even a small percentage of the gaming community.) Now, as an old codger, I don’t know anything at all about online games, even though they’re an enormous cultural phenomenon, with 56.4 million “online console gamers” (whatever they are) in 2016. Now, you would think that a brain-live political party would even now immediately and vociferously appealing to voters in that category by protecting their net neutrality — “Did you get an online game for Christmas? Want to keep playing it?” — but of course we’re talking the Democrats, here. Perhaps the DSA will be smarter; see the suggestion under Mesh Networks, supra.
APPENDIX II The National Park Service
This is such a wonderful and original suggestion for nationalizing the Internet that I want to call it out separately. From Mojo Mark at Hacker News:
The two challenges [to mesh networks] seem to be reliability and expansion to a global grid without relying on legacy backbones. For the former, resilience will of course improve with increased node density. For the latter I’m sure it will take a well funded, coordinated effort. I would gladly pay an annual tax to a new gov’t agency — perhaps an extension of the National Park Service, to build and maintain a grid of mesh nodes across the US, with connections to the legacy GIG backbones. [From the National Park Service “What we do” page:]
1.) The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.
IMO, the internet is an information landscape, very much tied to our geographical landscape, that should be free and protected just like any river or mountain.
Of course, Federal taxes don’t fund Federal spending, and the NPS, just like everything else these days, doubtless has a neoliberal infestation. That said, the NPS has a tremendous amount of good will, and a mission with a sound ethical basis. They are also national in scope, both urban and rural, and accustomed to maintaining infrastructure.