The public Internet is now over twenty years old and while some people in this country enjoy transfer speeds of 10 or 20 mbps I am saddled with an AT&T connection that runs at the bottom end of the high-speed spectrum (1.5 mbps download, 512 kbps upload). Add to this that the prices keep going up but the speeds seem to stay the same or be going down. By the way, it is not that I can’t afford a faster connection, I cannot get one where I live, and I live in a city of 400,000 people!
Most of us are not fortunate enough to live in a city offering Google’s gigabit fiber Ethernet, presently available only in Provo, Kansas City, and Austin. While I applaud Google’s efforts I believe a major change in the way we communicate will only come about through the action of the masses. There is simply too much of an economic incentive for large telecommunications companies to keep bandwidth scarce, and consequently pricey. So, what I propose is an end-run around these companies using existing technologies.
What would this require? It would require that everyone within a localized area install a wireless devices that would connect neighbor to neighbor in a pattern called a mesh. What this does is create a network of enormous power for very little money and with no major change to the infrastructure.
How It Works
In each home there would be a centralized wireless device installed. This device is what we call a wireless router/access point. You may already have something similar in your home now, but this new device would be different because it would communicate not only with the wireless devices in your house but also to the central wireless unit in the house next door.
The goal is to get enough of these central devices talking to each other so that you can talk to anyone on the localized wireless network at blazing speeds. It does not matter whether the person you want to talk to is three houses away or three miles away. If you have enough nodes you can talk to anyone in the city.
Now you may be saying to yourself at this point “Yes, but why would I want to share like that?” Well, that question gets answered by explaining two things: the speed problem and the cost question.
Here is why you would want to participate in something like this.
First, most communities are limited to what the telecommunications companies provide them. At present 20 mbps is considered a very fast internet connection. Of course, this is only the download speed. If you want to send something across the Internet it will be significantly slower. So, with a local wireless mesh network you could conceivably connect all the houses in a community together and have them talking to each other at a standard speed of 300 mbps! (This is the rated speed; however, even with interference and distance problems, which would attenuate the signals, you should still be able to best your local ISP’s speed.)
To give you a ballpark understanding of the ramifications of this consider the following. To download a full-length DVD over an internet connection operating at 1.5 mbps would take approximately 6 hours. To download the same DVD over a 50 mbps connection would take 20 minutes! (I use 50 mbps here to be conservative. It is possible a wireless mesh network could operate at 100 mbps or better depending on traffic, radio interference, and the quality of the hardware.)
Now, think about this in light of the recent decision to curb what is called net neutrality, the reason Netflix is now making deals to pay extra for streaming its service over Comcast lines. If Netflix were to set up a data warehouse in a particular city with a local mesh network to stream video to their customers, they would not have to worry about the extra cost, and customers would have access to DVD quality streaming. (I can barely stream at 720 p because of my slow connection.)
Okay, now to cost.
Presently you may pay $50 or $60 a month for your Internet service. With a local wireless mesh network you could potentially eliminate that bill entirely with the purchase of a $100 device. The reason you could do this is because if you only wanted to access resources on the local wireless mesh network there would be no monthly cost. Everyone who has purchased a node and set it up in their house has agreed to pass on your signal when you want to send out a packet of information, or to deliver a packet of information to your house. Each person involved in the network becomes an electronic postman for everyone else, and its FREE after the initial purchase of the equipment.
Now, you may say “Hang on! That sounds great but what if I still want to connect to internet resources outside my community?” No, problem. This could be solved by having either a community owned gateway or by allowing your local ISPs to bid for the privilege of carrying your packets into and out of the community.
In summary, the stranglehold of the telecommunications industry will only be effectively curtailed if we (the people) take action. The technology already exists but it is not easy to implement. You can’t just walk down to Best Buy and buy a wireless node for the mesh network. However, there are people working on this. Here is an article from Google. Here’s another dated article that goes into some detail about how to build a wireless mesh network.
Our best bet is to find communities where we can create pilot programs. This would hopefully spur some entrepreneurial efforts to create standard hardware and the implementation of standard protocols.
A free, local wireless internet running at 300 mbps is ours for the taking. It would be a big blow against the telecommunications industry, allowing us to stream video, communicate via voice and video, and locally host our websites or businesses at the cost of only the servers and software–the latter of which might also be nearly free if you know anything about Open Source software.
We know one thing for certain: if we wait for our telecommunications companies to innovate in this way we will be waiting forever. They have no incentive to bring us the type of communications system we both need and want at a reasonable price. If we are to get this type of network we must build it ourselves.