(The Great Singularity will be continued in a later blog)…
The Early Days of Wireless Networking
The 1990′s was a period of great excitement for computer hobbyists and nerds alike. Particularly the few who enjoyed building electronic toys on breadboards with little capacitors and microchips from Radio Shack. As rare as such people are, I once knew a man named Rick who had actually built his own serial cable adapter to hook his 66Mhz computer up to a CB radio and use it to send data over the air to someone else with the same setup on their end, using only radio frequencies to transmit data for miles and miles. This little idea of wireless data sharing wasn’t all that ground breaking at the time, mostly because it was SLOWWWW.
Still, it was the early 90′s, and just plain dial-up Internet access was THE wet dream of nerds like myself and the fellow I mentioned above. The Internet came late in the rural area I grew up in, so the next best thing was to connect directly to someone else’s computer via one means or another, usually a phone modem. (I have many very fond memories of playing Duke Nukem with a friend by using our phone lines to dial each others’ computers and start playing head to head. It was a degree more personal, direct, instant and consequently more fun than most of today’s impersonal multi-player games played against strangers, I think, but that’s just my opinion).
Fortunately, dial-up (and later DSL and cable) availability soon swept the nation, and most computer users now had a dependable method to access this so-called Internet. The old lost hobby of transmitting data from one computer wirelessly to another located miles away — seemingly for nothing more than a tiny fraction of your electric bill — became obsolete compared to the fast speed of 14.4 baud modem that was always available (unless you were using the busy-signal service provider AOL). It also had the added benefit of being a network with many millions of regular and increasingly diverse users. Suddenly, you didn’t have to be a student in a university to get access to hundreds of thousands of interesting websites and anybody could get an e-mail address from Yahoo with their very own 2 MB mailbox for free. The Internet was in the early stages of flowering, and many ISP services popped up to offer access for about 20 or 30 bucks a month.
Trying to build your own private network wirelessly with a CB radio wasn’t a bad idea. But if you had tried to do what Rick had done with a CB radio, and attempted to send a file the size of a 3 1/2 floppy over the air, it would have probably of taken at least an hour to send the whole thing. By comparison today, the same file can be downloaded via standard cable Internet in just 2 seconds (even over today’s wireless networks). In fact an increasing number of home users are now installing wireless networks in their homes for the convenience of being able to put their laptop anywhere in the house and get access to the Internet. This makes me wonder: What if the entire Internet were to be rebuilt (theoretically) with wireless radio signals instead of copper and fiber optics? We’ll come back to this idea later…
You have probably heard the term Net Neutrality come across the news on occasion, but not really have much of an understanding of what it is. In short, Net Neutrality is exercised when an ISP such as Cox, Road Runner or Comcast refuse to interfere with your Internet bandwidth based upon the types of traffic sent over the wire to your computer. An example of what a non-neutral ISP might do is if they sell their Internet in tiered packages, sold the same way cable companies sell their TV channel packages. You get the standard cable for X dollars, the premium channels for X dollars more, then there’s pay per view, etc. Do you want the Internet to be sold and regulated like that?
(Don’t worry. It’s fake….for now)
The current debate going on in congress is whether or not regulations should be put in place that would prevent companies like Cox or Comcast from establishing such tiered packages. Since the debate was brought to Congress in the middle of 2006, every bill proposed thus far has been killed. In a world where the Internet is packaged and sold under dubious terms and conditions such as limiting which websites you are allowed to visit, you’d soon realize that restricting access in such a manner would brush up against violating the First Ammendment.
One of the overlooked reasons behind cable based ISPs wanting to restrict and split Internet access into more controllable tiers is bandwidth usage by P2P file-sharing protocols such as the popular Bittorrent, which uses an efficient mesh-topology for sharing files. It allows users to upload and download files to each other in “swarms”, spreading the overhead of file transfer across many users at once, instead of relying on one individual to get stuck with the overhead of sending the whole file to multiple users one after another. The end result: You could theoretically share a file with thousands (if not millions) of people in the same amount of time as it used to take to share it with just 2 or 3 users.
(Above: Bittorrent in action, starting with one “seed” and seven “leeches” which all become seeds themselves in the end)
While a majority of Bittorrent traffic on the web is currently used for illegal file-sharing, it is also a technology that is used for legitimate purposes and poses unlimited potential to TV program producers. So much so that large TV networks will inevitably use it to distribute their programs (new value chain = Producer<Advertiser), instead of through tradition means (Producer<Distributor<Broadcaster<Advertiser); effectively cutting out middle men like Direct TV or Cox and replacing them with the Internet in general. The term used to describe TV distributed via Bittorrent or similar file sharing protocols is called “hyper distribution,” and it’s a threat Cable companies are attempting to squash.
So what do you do when your ISP starts to block your downloads when ABC start to distribute Desperate Housewives over the Internet for free? Well, you’d do the natural thing, and choose a competing ISP who doesn’t filter your traffic… But what if that wasn’t a very easy thing to do? In a world where you are forced to seek out an alternative method of accessing an uncensored Internet, it might be difficult to find an outlet. Because if one ISP practices such traffic filtering, what would stop others from following suit in some form? What if DSL Internet access suddenly cost a lot more money so you could access and download legitimate, legal torrent files? What then?
Municipal Wireless Internet
There are many metropolitan areas in the US that have established or are attempting to build what is called a Municipal Broadband Wireless Internet. This is essentially a government supported infrastructure that allows anyone in the public free or low-cost wireless Internet access from anywhere within city limits. You could be sitting on a park bench reading Yahoo News for instance and it would be paid for by tax dollars. The flaw with this setup (from an Orwellian perspective) is that it was built by the government, or at least heavily subsidized by it. This defaults to them the ability to regulate and/or monitor that particular avenue of Internet access more quickly and at their discretion. After all, they built it via tax dollars you gave them in the first place, which governments like ours so often use in our best interests… right?
Enter Orwell’s Internet (Tinfoil hats optional)
At this point I will attempt to introduce elements of a hypothetical scenario that George Orwell would have likely written into his classic novel 1984 had he known the Internet would exist on such a global scale as it does today. Granted, it is hard to picture what such a world would be like — where the information you are allowed to download to your computer is sanctioned and closely monitored by your own government. But all you have to do is look at the many places in the world that actually practice heavy Internet censorship, like China or Burma, to see that such restrictions exist in many places and are very scary to think about.
Could such restrictions and unwarranted surveillance be visited upon the general public here in America? To a degree, it already does occur, though it’s exercised under the banner of national security and anti-terrorism efforts. There is a remote possibility that it could get a lot worse, but that strongly depends on the public’s misunderstanding about topics like Net Neutrality, combined with the heavy lobbying efforts put forth by the nations largest media corporations, not to mention who ever happens to be President at the time and what the FCC has to say about it. So what I’d like to bring up is this remote possibility of such intense government regulations over the Internet taking place, and why such a scenario would never actually fly if it were implemented in the US.
So far I’ve touched base on the boom of the Internet, followed by Net Neutrality and now the dawn of Municipal WiFi, with a warning that it’s not so delightful a thing in a typical Orwellian dystopia: Googleing the word “democracy” would get you no search results. Personal privacy would be complete fantasy, everybody would be their own brothers policeman, so on and so forth. You’d be surprised what a government might be able to get its own citizens to do with enough fear propaganda. Ask any German who lived when Hitler was in power, or anyone from China who is accustomed to reading state sanctioned “news.”
Fortunately, things are much better off for us today. We have an Internet that is still very very neutral and open and booming. Blogging and alternative channels of news are replacing mainstream news, and criticism of the Iraq war and our current President (for instance) are at an all time high. I believe the Internet is the primary reason for such rapid disapproval percentages. Back in the days of Vietnam, you didn’t see hundreds of thousands of people protesting in the streets of New York before the invasion. You didn’t see approval ratings of the war and the president drop until after 20,000 of our men were killed. And you likely didn’t hear any open commentary on the TV about whether or not the Gulf of Tonkin Incident had actually occurred, since such news was dictated down to the media by the government, who simply transcribed and repeated the line. Why? Well, probably because the Internet as we know it today didn’t exist, nor anything like it at that time.
Now the tables are turned, as there is an infinite choice of outlets to get information at the click of a mouse. The Internet isn’t just a great resource for finding information, but also for finding diverse opinions, instead of canned opinions espoused by pundits. You see, news papers and TV stations and magazines are essentially owned by their advertisers. That doesn’t sound quite right at first but that’s the way it’s always been in the mainstream. What you see reported or discussed on TV is strongly influenced by the money that is coming in from advertisers. If a news report holds a potential for dramatically affecting the bottom line of a company that pays the news outlet money to advertise, it might choose to take it’s money elsewhere, lest the news outlet leave certain bits out, or drop a story all together. The increased use of the Internet for gathering and cross-referencing the veracity behind a headline or article or even an opinionated blog (like this one) is a sign of great change in our culture. Whether it be by leaving a comment, starting their own blog, using Digg to bring attention to something important, organizing a grassroots organization, whatever, the bottom line is the public now feels an increased sense of empowerment and participation and ability to be more involved with political movements.
But what if access were suddenly limited? What if, in a perfect George Orwell dystopia, the Internet as we know it died, and was replaced with one where public dissent is censored, its authors secretly jailed, and all the rest that goes with living within an absolute monarchy? How might a freedom-willed public which has roots going back to the Constitution or Bill of Rights counter act such an anti-democratic place when the most popular form of communication is swept out from under them and controlled by some invisible overlord?
Remember Rick? The guy who had successfully sent data to someone else using a computer and his own CB radio? We’ve come a long way from that kind of technology. Today, we have Wireless B and G, soon to be Wireless N, and others yet to be invented. Wireless N is pretty noteworthy as it will be able to go about 4-8 times faster than Wireless G. Let’s put this in perspective. The average cable modem can download ~5 megabits of data per second and upload ~0.60 per second. Wireless N is capable of uploading and downloading ~240 Megabits per second simultaneously. That’s 48 times faster than cable!
Now, think back on how Bittorrent works. Every person (or node) on the network uploads and downloads to a few other people simultaneously as a collective swarm. This is called a mesh-topology, where each users acts as a client/server and pseudo-router at the same time. Lets say you were to build a network of a few thousand computers on a Wireless N backbone, combining the bandwidth of all nodes together, and you’d have yourself one damn fast network of computers. Those computers could all share their own resources with each other if they wish, such as files or other networks they’re connected to that are off the grid (such as the “real” Internet), acting as a source or simply an intermediary between two points.
So what does Orwell have to say about all this? Well, he’d probably pipe up and start asking about security. If your data is being transmitted over the web through dozens, if not thousands of other computers in the public, whats keeping someone from capturing your data out of the air and stealing information from you? The same question could be asked about the Internet as it exists today, but doesn’t come up much because you’re supposed to trust your ISP not to spy on you. One answer to this problem is strong encryption. In addition, cypher keys could shift at random intervals, making the task of locking onto one for the purposes of exploiting it extremely difficult, if not entirely pointless.
There are obviously more details and concerns that arise from attempting to build such a wireless darknet of sorts, but simply knowing that you could easily get it off the ground with the right software speaks volumes. Especially to the millions of people in America who already own wireless adapters on their home PC’s and Laptops. You theoretically wouldn’t even have to purchase any new hardware; it’s already in place if you live in the right neighborhood. The difference would be in how you use it, and a simple piece of software could take care of that.
The idea of a wireless darknet being built in a country where Internet censorship is exercised is not new, just unconventional for us at the moment. However, China is one country that has all the right ingredients for seeing such a technology take off: high-tech culture, dictatorship, aggressive suppression of political dissent, and most importantly a high population density. Now all they need is a little motivation. It doesn’t take much for us Americans to get motivated though. We’d more likely embrace a darknet of sorts simply to save a lot of money than we would to read the news or post a blog. Nevertheless, it is an option we have at our disposal.