The Time Is Now for Local Networks

My ongoing experience with Tiscali’s appalling broadband offering has made me research the overall broadband industry in the UK. The picture is now becoming alarmingly ugly. Something has to happen to avert a disaster, and that something may be local networks. But before I elaborate on the solution (although not a new idea), let me outline the problem.

There seem to be several horsemen of the information apocalypse riding over the horizon towards us. First, there is market economics and the primary fact that the ISPs have clearly oversold their capacity. This has resulted in hoards of disgruntled consumers wanting access to content that is increasingly out of their reach, while the ISPs compete on price after having exhausted what (if anything) they spent on infrastructure. This is also compounded by many other related factors including the BT Wholesale monopoly, the feeding frenzy whipped up by the 3G auctions, and the subsequent reluctance of network providers to invest in better delivery platforms after the spectacular failure of 3G technologies to deliver.

Then there are the copyright maximalists: the BPI, the record labels, music and film publishing industries defending inflexible and outdated business models. This has resulted in all manner of draconian measures against “intellectual property theft”: rootkits, wire taps and covert operations against consumers are all seen as legitimate methods, despite there being no evidence that declining sales have been caused by the Internet.

Then there are governments. While this particular horseman is riding blind behind the copyright maximalists, it is still just as damaging to the development of the Internet as one of the most important technological and social developments in history. Scandalously industry bias is fed by laughable ministerial ignorance, political laziness and a belief that the Internet should be controlled for no better reason than it can.

Lastly, there is the bastard child of the first horseman: the desire of the ISPs to escape their current penury by becoming broadcasters of content in their own right. The weapons are already being sharpened: traffic shaping in the name of “capacity planning”, content filtering in the name of protecting the children, the selling of three-way “bundles” and experiments with masthead programming backed by attacks on established broadcasters. In particular, the BBC and the iPlayer have been the focus of some remarkable comments recently. This child seems relatively harmless now, but it could grow up to be worse than all the others put together.

So what then can be done? I don’t know, but I have little faith in governments and a lot more faith in crowds. Here’s a scenario:

I have a wireless router. I can see several of my neighbours’ routers as well. What if we all decided to open up our wireless circuits into a private intranet? This isn’t a new idea, and several years ago it was promoted by a site called Consume invited people to declare that they had wireless and were willing to share it. In the days before Google Maps mashups, the site had a map onto which you put your pin. The system would then give you an idea of whether you might have other people in range, and provided a way for you to contact them to arrange hooking up. Technical advice and equipment configuration discussions were also provided on a mailing list.

The overall purpose of Consume was never made entirely clear, but at the very least it would be wonderful for sharing your CD collection with your neighbour, and watching some of their DVDs on a weekend. Independent of regulation, bandwidth capping and so on, a local network could also act as a sort of ad hoc network cache. Pretty soon you’d be turning first to the local network (for free), and then to the (expensive) public network for content you didn’t find there. This might take the heat off the ISPs. Not only would it use less bandwidth overall, but it and might even allow them to brush off the publishing industry on the grounds that whatever people did in the privacy of their own network was up to them.
Consume withered away though, and I’ve not given it much thought for the last five years. Perhaps it was an idea before its time. But now we have the ISP crisis, cheap, plentiful storage, and cheap and quite powerful wireless routers in nearly every house in London. The idea, I think, has found its time.