Grassroots responses to net neutrality debates

March 10th, 2006 | by Andrew Ó Baoill |

Over at Mediageek, Paul is thinking about possible grassroots responses to attacks on network neutrality. Without plotting specific policy responses he references previous (and ongoing) debates on media policy, and responses such as Indymedia and LPFM:

By way of comparison, the micropower unlicensed radio movement provided both an immediate means of communication and an impetus for policy changes in DC, which helped begat LPFM. While I did write my Congresscritters on LPFM, I’ve also lent support to the microbroadcasters who pushed the boundaries (and still do). Now we have LPFM and micropower stations continue to fill the gaps.

The question he then raises is a provocative one – can we, with this issue, go beyond seeking to regulate the big players (that is, vesting agency in our political representatives, and leaving the field to industry players and government-mandated regulatory responses)?

This got me thinking about some of my observations of the telecoms industry as I finished working with eircom. I became convinced that the big telcos will eventually content themselves with the backbone infrastructure – that’s where the power is, that’s what everyone else feeds into. It’s all very well setting up a CUWiN network, or even a local telco co-op – and you can incrementally undertake actions that will siphon away the last-mile business from the traditional telcos – but you eventually need to, as Paul notes, connect to the larger network. In Ireland/Europe where competition has been regulated even on the backbone (big players have to provide transit on a cost-plus basis) you may be limited in your return, but you’re still guaranteed a minimum RoI.

Strangely, thanks to companies like Atlantic Crossing (Enron for telcos) the world has far more dark fiber capacity than we need, but the cost of just turning it on requires major investment, and it’s not necessarily in the right places.

Also, internet peering will be necessary for any new player looking to enter the internet backbone game, and that means you have to enter as a big player. (Incidentally, if we’re looking for a useful partner for the grassroots, why not look to the Universities. They probably have as much capacity as Google, if not more, with nodes in more places. I know in Ireland one of the largest internet backbones is HEANet, a consortium of educational institutions. They do stress exclusive focus on education and research, but other educational networks may be more open to broadening their interaction with social organizations.)

Incidentally, in Ireland the government, after selling off the state-owned telco has now contracted companies to roll-out backbone facilities for connection of MANs (Municipal Area Networks).

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