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The Glass Roots movement

Recently, while keynoting the Freedom 2 Connect conference in Washington, I spoke about some of my ideas for fiber networks being built from the ground up. For example, I hope for the day when cheap kits can be bought at local stores to fiber up your block by running fiber through the back yards, in some cases literally burying the fiber in the "grass roots."

Doc Searls, while he was listening to the talk made up a clever term -- "Glass Roots" to describe this, and other movements to deploy fiber bottom up, without waiting for telcos and city governments. Any time you can deploy a technology without permission and red tape, it quickly zooms ahead of other technology. Backyard fiber, -- combined with cheaper, mass produced free-space-optics or gigabit EHF radio equipment to bridge blocks together across streets or make links to hilltops -- could provide the bandwidth we want without waiting.

Because let's face it. While wireless ISPs sound great and are indeed great for serving some types of customers, right now real bandwidth requires a wire or glass fiber in the ground, and that means monopoly telcos and cable companies as well as the hassles of city government. We want our gigabits (forget megabits) and we want them now.

There are other elements to this Glass Roots movement, though usually with city involvement. Several small towns have put in fiber based ISPs with good success. My friend Brewster Kahle, from the Internet Archive, has brought 100 megabit service to housing projects in San Francisco using some city-laid fiber and the Archive's bandwidth. You go, Brewster.

Brough Turner has the right idea. We should get dark fiber under our streets, and lots of it, installed and leased by a company that is only in the fiber business, and not in the business of selling you video or phone service or internet. While this company might get a franchise, the important difference is that the franchised monopoly would not light the fiber. Instead, anybody could lease a fiber from their house to a major switching point, and light it any way they want. Darth Vader would tell us "you don't understand the power of the dark fiber."

Why is that important? While fiber and wire are basic, the technologies to "light them up" run on Moore's law. They get obsolete very quickly. Instead of monopoly rents and long cost-plus amortization tables, you want lots of turnover in the actual electronics found at the ends. You want the option to get the latest stuff, which is usually faster and cheaper than the stuff from 2 years ago. Lots faster and lots cheaper.

If you get a lot of free market competition on what lights those endpoints, it gets even better. The result is plenty of choice in how you light it and who you get connectivity from. And that eliminates all the issues around network neutrality or walled gardens. The investment in the dark fiber can probably be amortized over a decade or two, which is long enough.

One might argue the monopoly should even just be at the level of a conduit which it's easy to drag other things like fiber or wire through. And indeed, whoever does bury pipes under the streets should expect to pull other wires before too long. But having monopoly lockdown at any level above the glass is what slows down the advance of broadband. Get rid of that lockdown, and the real glass roots revolution can begin.


When the Phorm issue blew up I started thinking about the lack of alternatives and monopolies of the network. This naturally gets you thinking about setting up your own ISP and network. The way I see it is big bad business has lost the mandate of heaven by bullying and cheating customers. With flat growth and increasing demand they haven't grasped the idea they're a utility behind the curve and are trying to create a walled garden where people get what they're issued with and bled for every coin they can squeeze. This narrow minded and selfish approach is beginning to develop an ego bubble and a "lass roots" scheme would help pop that.

Back when the internet first started properly in Britain many businesses shared internet connections as fast and constant access was expensive. Some businesses were still stuck on dial up until flat rate access kicked off a few years later. The look and feel of this was pretty much shared by domestic customers as well. Since then things have improved and prices have fallen but the technical delivery is still slow and prices higher than the utlity status internet delivery really justifies. Unless transport gets much better and cheaper I don't see much opportunity for inclusive all you can eat access to intellectual property taking off.

Government gets blamed for a lot and, sometimes, the people get what they deserve, but business isn't some magical force that's above it all. Business has a role and responsibility to play in creating and sustaining a better future for everyone, and the chest beating authoritarianism and legalistic greed they're showing in the British internet market is beginning to look backward and out of touch. In some ways that makes me glad they tried to pull a scam like Phorm because it's a wakeup call. Instead of cowering in the face of their carefully crafted authority and privileged lobby access, it's shaping up that government and people will call their bluff.

Good points (big bad business, indeed).

Here in Jesusland (Alabama), we have many poverty-riddled areas that could greatly benefit from the "glass roots".

Wonder if we could get the Native American tribes to use their sovereign status (and casino properties) and develop wireless access, sort of the way this D. Hendricks guy wanted to...?

Not all fiber optic cable is created equal, and it does make a difference to the network engineering.

Sure, very local networks can be built on a communal basis, but once you're travelling more than a few hundred feet you need to start engineering your network, and that usually means co-ordinating the link loss with the launch power and amplifiers: if the dark fiber provider adds a splice because the fiber got cut, it can affect the network engineering. Or worse, the fiber provider mis-connected your glass and blew up your Very Expensive 1550nm optical receiver. And the location opportunities for amplifiers can also be limited - especially if you're buying dark glass "to a major switching point".

For these (and related) reasons it's usually simpler to buy a lit wavelength (sharing the network engineering headaches with other users of that fiber), or to buy bandwidth capacity.

Dedicated strand fiber networks can be built, and should be encouraged, but it's not a game for the faint of heart.

But when you start mass producing stuff it gets cheaper, and people work harder on making it robust for end users, more plug and play. You get equipment that adapts when the medium changes characteristics. You get a lot of things we don't see now.

But there is a huge difference in what you get when you let people at the endpoints play with what they put on, and you let vendors create whatever they like to sell to customers, and you let tinkerers experiment than what you get when you have a provider and that's all you have. Providers, especially monopoly providers, just think differently than customers and tinkerers. Their motives are different, their drives are different.

The innovation at the ends wins if you let it.

Now we could have gotten a lot of this with copper too, if the ilecs hadn't had their own conflicts of interest. But at this point, if you were laying down conduits on the street, you would lay down glass, and I suspect glass will be a good thing to have under the street for a modestly long time -- aeons in networking time. We'll come up with something we want more than fiber in the 2020s, but by then we'll have cheap robots to scurry down tunnels or crawl over poles and put the new new thing inside.

In more bad news Virgin Media is trialling a scheme where they're chopping customers bandwidth down to near dialup speeds from 11 in the morning to 12 at night. They plan to roll this out nationally across the UK within the next few months. The excuse is torrents and service providers like the BBC are nuking their capacity but it just looks to me like the usual lack of forward planning by a CEO who just wants a quick way to raise earnings. If other ISP's were a one click option away or the people owned the network I'm pretty sure they'd fold in a heartbeat.

I am totally with you on this point. I've been dreaming for local neighbourhood networks for more than ten years now, and still they don't show up. But the problem isn't really the cables, in a time of wireless networking, the local concept still doesn't take off - and I think it's mainly for security reasons. As soon as you open up a network for unknown people around you, everybody using it has to trust everybody else on this network a lot. Because there is no such thing as a completely secured network. I've been living in a dorm with local network connection to almost 5000 other students, and as happy as I was about the speed and the opportunities, I also heard about cases of stolen diploma thesis, malicious harddisk deleting, and the like. Agreed, this can happen on the internet, too, but on a smaller network, with no ISP giving basic security control, the chances seem to be much higher.

But lately some thing called DLan has come to my notice, that uses already installed copper cable for highspeed networking - maybe it is strong enough for reaching your neighbours houses, too, so you need just some good routers and some kind of token ring structure for data transmission, in order to get local networks without digging up the garden in the yards.

My thoughts on liberated connectivity (internet access 3.0) and a wireless version can be found here:

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