By Wally Bowen, Asheville Citizen-Times – Sunday, May 20, 2012
Once upon a time, Internet enthusiasts made the following comparison: the Internet is to 21st-century economies what navigable waterways and roads were to 19th and 20th-century economies.
But what if our rivers and highways were controlled by a private cartel which set tolls and dictated the make and model of our boats and vehicles? It’s unthinkable, of course. Yet over the last decade, a cartel of cable and phone companies has gained this kind of control over more than 95 percent of Internet access in the US.
In response, many communities have built municipal broadband networks. The cartel, in turn, has persuaded legislatures in 19 states, including North Carolina, to pass laws prohibiting municipal networks.
Scholars call this the “enclosure” of the Internet, similar to the enclosure of rural commons by private owners in 18th and 19th-century England. This trend includes smart phones and tablets which are locked down and controlled by licensing agreements. By contrast, the personal computer is open to innovation. You can take it apart, experiment, and create new functionality. You can also download your choice of software, including free open-source programs.
The full impact of this corporate enclosure of the Internet is still to come, but evidence of it is growing. Consider e-books. When you purchase a real book, you enjoy “first sale” ownership. You can resell it or use it as a doorstop. You can do anything with it, except reproduce it. But when you purchase an e-book, your options are limited by a license that can be changed any time by the vendor without your consent.
With an enclosed Internet, we become renters rather than owners. Our freedom to experiment and innovate, while not totally lost, is governed by gatekeepers and licensing regimes.
But there is a way around the Internet gatekeepers: “open wireless” networks using unlicensed spectrum.
Most spectrum used for smartphones is licensed to, and controlled by, the telecom cartel. By contrast, the free Wi-Fi we enjoy in coffeehouses is unlicensed and free for anyone to use and experiment with. But this spectrum has a very limited range. In 2008, therefore, the FCC approved the “TV white spaces” (TVWS) for unlicensed use. Often called “Wi-Fi on steroids,” this superior spectrum has a far greater range and capacity than conventional Wi-Fi.
Last December the FCC approved the first TVWS device. This new technology can provide seamless coverage throughout a city like Asheville, thereby creating a viable alternative to the cable/phone company cartel. Here’s a sampling of what’s possible via “open wireless” technology:
* “Buy local” advocates use open-wireless to run mobile payment systems that keep money in the local economy and reduce the burden of credit card fees on local merchants.
* “Green energy” advocates use open wireless to transform the corporate “smart-grid” to a “micro-grid” that empowers local innovators and entrepreneurs to promote conservation and new sources of energy.
* A hospital in Ohio is field-testing a TVWS network for its emergency room. When EMS vehicles are in range, patient information and vital signs are automatically transmitted ahead to the ER staff.
These creative and local uses of the Internet were possible because of open-wireless technologies. No one had to ask permission of a network owner or pay rent to a license-holder.
For “Smart Cities” and local self-reliance advocates, open-wireless networks are essential community infrastructure. “Community wireless protects our freedom to innovate and problem-solve in ways that keep money and jobs in the local economy,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Since 2003, the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) has operated an open-wireless network, but its reach and capacity have been limited. With the imminent arrival of the TV “white spaces” technology, MAIN is launching a $50,000 capital campaign to convert its wireless network to TVWS. This new technology is estimated to have a range of 15-20 miles with speeds of 10-15 megabits per second.
As the telecom cartel tightens its grip on the Internet, MAIN and its partners envision Internet access for Asheville and WNC that protects civil liberties and preserves the freedom to innovate for local inventors and entrepreneurs. To learn more or to get involved, visit: http://www.main.nc.us/TVWS.
Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of MAIN. In 2010, he was diagnosed with ALS. He will be stepping down as executive director later this year, but will continue working on community broadband policy and advocacy.