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Why Free, Publicly Owned, Publicly Run, Municipal Wifi Is Required for Equal Internet Access for All (And Why It Will Never Happen)

When people say that access to the Internet is a right, this is wrong. A commercial product, or service cannot be a right. The Internet may seem like a big open environment, but it is a commercial entity from end to end. ISPs charge for access, and you can’t get online—anywhere—without a commercial Internet provider being involved in the ‘last-mile’ part of your connection. Even if the access is free, like a public library, the library (or government) still pays the ISP.

Saying that smoking is a right is an offence to everybody in the world who struggles to receive their basic right to an education and freedom from oppression. If someone has the sheer privileged luxury to afford cigarettes (and the sheer stupidity to smoke them), then that is their choice. It is not a right—something that you have to have even if you don’t like it. Kids don’t like education, but it’s a right. Rights are not opt-in.

This is where the Internet comes in. The Internet can be an education tool, and can facilitate freedom, and therefore is seen as a necessary right for the future.

However, the lack of free, publicly owned, publicly run, municipal wifi prevents Internet access being a right, rather than a privilege. This breaks down to three main areas of issue:

1. Commercial Interests Are Not in the Interest of the Public

All commercial companies exist firstly to make profit. Any altruistic character in a company is even without intention a form of marketing. Cynical? Yes; but also true. A commercial entity can do no good if it does not first ensure that it continues to exist. And rather than continuing to exist being a secondary consideration, it is in most cases pursued to the detriment of everything else. Does a company like Shell say that $4 Billion profit is enough, and they should perhaps—instead of damaging the planet—change business to something more constructive? No. The shareholders must be pleased.

It’s this line of thinking, that the impossible must continually be achieved in order to appease ‘the shareholders’, that can permeate every branch of a business.

When decisions are made—at every level of business—to please shareholders, decisions tend to go against openness, freedom and public benefit. It is why we have proprietary technologies and software. Digital Rights Management. Laws against the public modifying or reverse-engineering the items they purchase. Copyright laws. Vendor lock-in. Annoyances, such as DVD regions and mobile phone locking and least-not rootkits on audio CDs.

These restrictions are put in place to ensure that profitability is maintained. That’s perfectly fair, given the primary goal of any company; they must protect their R&D investments and always strive to have new products that are ahead of the curve. They could not achieve that if they gave away all of their investments to the public domain.

How are students to build the next set of tools for the future, when they are not allowed to know how the tools they are given to use were made?

This is one of the things that is so special about the World Wide Web. Armed with a text editor, you can create the next Twitter, or next world-changing web-app. You don’t require education and tools that are only accessible when you have an employer with enough cash to let you join that club. Whilst you may not have the financial advantage on your own, even Notepad is a tool you can use to take on the biggest corporations. Where else does an individual have that level of freedom with their tools?

One example of commercial interest foregoing public interest is in the case of Netscape. At the release of Netscape 7, AOL did not include pop-up blocking in Netscape, despite the open-source Mozilla suite (from which Netscape is produced) having this feature. Backlash from reviewers forced AOL to release an update: Netscape 7.01, including “pop-up suppressor”. The problem? AOL ’Web properties including Netscape.com relied upon pop-ups for revenue, thus AOL’s sites were on the pop-up whitelist by default—Netscape.com was the default homepage.

A publicly owned, publicly run, non-profit ISP—whilst not being perfect—would not make decisions that directly conflicted with public interests when it came to providing Internet access. The French ‘three-strikes’ rule would not be able to stand given public pressure over a service which they themselves own and operate.

A non-profit ISP would think less about ‘customers’ and retention rates, and more about how the existing service can be improved. A commercial ISP will not lay the lines out to remote areas unless it is eventually profitable. A public ISP would have to, on the basis of equal access for all.

2. Access Requires an Account

There is this notion that we will all soon be computing ‘in the cloud’. Storing our data online, and accessing and manipulating it through browser-based web-apps; even perhaps that the boundary between the desktop and the browser will break down and we will have an always-online desktop-manager with all of our data and apps stored in the cloud and streamed to us.

The reason this will never happen is that it will never be possible to assure that a computer is always online without free, municipal wifi access being ubiquitous.

Since it is not possible to buy a new computer, open it for the first time, and it straight-away be online without any configuration; software developers will always have to design and create to cater for configuring a connection and the machine being in an offline state. This fact is a big problem: To get online you must have an account with an ISP.

Unless we are going to migrate to only ever computing in coffee shops (and they need an account with an ISP too), the Internet requires that you have some kind of account with some company which you must authenticate with.

How can the next generation of always-online software be designed and developed if, for example, every child in Africa needs to sign up for an account with an ISP? If Internet access always requires a contract, then operating systems will not be able to be designed with the assumption they are always online, and never be able to move beyond traditional offline computing.

This comes back to the Netscape / AOL problem; how can ISPs let everybody access the Internet free and without an account? They would have nobody to bill, and therefore would have to take action against the public interest to fund this setup (collecting and selling aggregated traffic data, for example).

The proliferation of 3G wireless broadband only worsens the access problem. Internet providers have been so utterly lax and unmotivated in providing nation-wide Wifi access (because frankly there’s no money in it), that they’ve instead moved their interests to highly profitable 3G access.

Now, instead of open and free wifi access, everybody is walking around paying for their own individual, over-priced, over-restricted network connection which, despite you paying for your own way, still slows down with more people on 3G around you.

The carriers won! Free municipal wifi is dead.
Overpriced, over-restricted 3G is the new wifi.

Kroc Camen

The current 3G network and how you pay to access it is a massive step backwards away from the Internet as a right. You must sign a contract with a 3G provider, undergo a credit check and pay exorbitant prices with massive fines for going over the “unlimited” limit.

How—if this model is to be applied to Internet as a right—are children going to educate themselves if their Internet access is so restricted and that they have to depend on their parents being able to afford access in the first place?

3. Brands Are a Barrier to Transparency

The third reason why commercial Internet Service Providers hinder the Internet as a right, is that no commercial Internet provider actually wants the job that they have. Internet Service Providers are brands. They must assert their brand at all opportunities in order to drum up sales.

Would you, for example, expect the labels on a drinks bottle to have a logo on it for the company who made the UV lamps that cured the ink on that label? No, and as it should be with ISPs too. Internet providers should not be brands that have to combat other brands. They are a service, not a product.

ISPs do not like being marginalised into what they really are: a wire. A cable I use to connect to the Internet. Network infrastructure—a thankless and behind-the-scenes job.

ISPs:

I pay you to put a cable in my house, and let me send things up and down it; no more. I don’t want your useless anti-virus products. I don’t want your “Desktop Help” applications. I don’t want your tray icons. I don’t want your proprietary browsers. I don’t want an e-mail address with you. I don’t want your website as my home page (including a Google search that only shows adverts).

Kroc Camen: A List of People Who Need to Stop Writing Software

Internet access for all should not rely on a brand being popular and being continually asserted. A publicly funded ISP would be more concerned about how to reach more people than trying to tie the users into their proprietary and pointless software, or whatever other backroom deals they’ve been doing (read: BT-Yahoo).

Commercial ISPs in competition with each other have over-sold their network capacity on the basis that most people only use a fraction of the bandwidth they sign up for. P2P has changed that forever. Now that people are using the bandwidth they were sold, legal wrangles have had to be put in place so that their “unlimited” packages are so limited that it’s not actually possible to use the speed advertised as sold. This has gone to the point where an 8 Mb connection can be capped as low as 900 Kb/s.

Whilst a public ISP would also have to manage network capacity, with no advertising costs and the public interest in mind more could be spent on infrastructure as well as putting in place fairer and democratic handling of bandwidth limits.

In Summary

Internet access should:

And why will this never happen? Because like the banking system, our society is founded on the principles of money exchange and therefore currently existing commercial entities cannot be simply swept to the side for the purpose of implementing something better. The only way commercial ISPs will go away is if all of them all go bankrupt at the same time.

There are many more complications and finer details involved, not least funding. The U.K. has just announced a 50p tax on phone lines to pay for improvements to the network to provide ‘universal access to broadband by 2012’¹.

This is at least, a first step.

As for the actual hardware for people to access the Internet as a right, that is another problem to discuss another day.