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The Case for Digital Onramps in Every U.S. Community

The Case for Digital Onramps in Every U.S. Community

Lars Peterson
University of Wisconsin - Parkside

The Plight

The case for digital onramps is best introduced with the struggle I had in obtaining my Integrated Services Digital Network, a.k.a. ISDN, line. An ISDN line allows for the sending and receiving of data over the internet at speeds that are approximately three to four times as fast as speeds possible with normal dial-up modems and phone lines. I have paid dearly for this service and am grateful to have received a positive by-product from it; an education in how the U.S. telephone companies are not outfitted to provide high speed internet solutions to the public, namely.

After using the high speed connection at my university, I began to develop the desire to have a similar "internet pipe" coming into my house. My main motives behind obtaining a fast connection were viewing streaming video (with quality comparable to television), and listening to live audio broadcasts. I dreamt of instantaneous downloads, where the only limiting factor in how fast the bits would enter my machine's innards was the rate at which the hard drive was willing to accept them.

Digital subscriber line (a.k.a. DSL) and cable internet services were not available in my neighborhood. I learned this the hard way: ordering DSL service three separate times from three different providers. Each time I placed my order, a field engineer from my local telephone company showed up at my doorstep to deliver a message, "Looks like whoever sold you this order was mistaken on how far you are from the nearest Local Exchange Carrier (a.k.a. LEC). We can't provide DSL service to you. Sorry." Reason: in order to be eligible for DSL connectivity, you must not be further than 18,000 feet from your telephone company's Local Exchange Carrier. My house was 19,000 feet from my nearest LEC. Each of the three times I placed an order with a DSL provider, I was assured that my distance from the LEC would not be a problem.

Rather than making plans to move somewhere within the 18,000 feet limit of the LEC in order to qualify for DSL, I instead considered my next options: satellite and wireless broadband solutions. These technologies had been getting a lot of attention in the latest tech news; I presumed it would be easy enough to find a provider in my area. I was mistaken. When I called one of the satellite internet service providers, they told me that I had better not make the investment now because the service was still very new and subject to frequent outages. The other satellite provider used an interface that relied on proprietary software drivers, and would not support Linux, the operating system I use. Wireless was not available in my area at all. Satellite and wireless broadband technologies appeared to be in their infancy stages.

As much as I had wanted to avoid them, my local telephone company was the only option remaining. The telephone company could offer me either an ISDN line or a T1 line (a T1 line is equivalent to twelve ISDN lines). With a minimum setup cost in the thousands of dollars, and a monthly fee of at least $200, I knew that I would not be able to afford the cost of a full or fractional T1 line [5]. I was left with one option: ISDN. I ordered it right away, feeling somewhat defeated by the system.

It took three months before the ISDN circuit was installed. During the installation my neighbor peeked in and asked what was going on. With a sly smirk on my face, I told him that I was finally upgrading my internet connection. He smiled back at me and informed me that he had ordered DSL and it was to be installed in a few weeks. The telco engineers overheard our conversation. They explained how the DSL technology functions, and that our neighborhood would not possess the necessary equipment to carry the signal for DSL service for at least two more years, given the current pace of expansion.

A few weeks later my neighbor received the same disappointing visit from the telco field engineers as I had. I sympathized with his frustration. I asked myself, "Why is the telco advertising and taking orders for technology that only a few can receive?" More importantly: "Why do we have to be at the mercy of the telco and other large, cumbersome corporations for our broadband internet services?"

The Revelation

What if a connection to the internet was regarded in the same manner as a United States Postal Service mailbox? That is, a necessary utility equally and freely accessed by all citizens of the United States. Local and federal governments can play key roles in providing the infrastructure needed for high speed internet services for all corners of the country.

Some may argue that high speed internet connections at home should still be considered a novelty, and that governments have no place in establishing and maintaining computer networks. They might say that current government regulation of the telephone industry already insures that all citizens have access to the internet. I disagree. In the years to come, an increasing amount of our daily communications will rely on high speed data networks. Video conferencing, streaming audio and video, IP telephony, and telecommuting are just a few reasons that every U.S. household should be given the equal opportunity to connect to the internet at higher speeds than dial-up.

Commercial companies have not and will not invest in technologies to provide affordable high-speed internet access services to areas they deem too costly, such as remote rural areas, or low-income inner city neighborhoods. This "geographical broadband discrimination" that is taking place today is in effect deepening the digital divide in the years to come.

Free markets don't always come to the socially optimal outcome, and they certainly can't be relied on to distribute resources equitably [2]. Basic Economic principles tell us that a firm is not going to make a large investment in internet infrastructure unless there are likely to be profits realized in the near future. Take the telephone industry's T1 technology, for example: Although the wiring into most homes and small businesses could support T1 data rates, the telco's cannot offer low cost T1 to home users at reasonable prices because it would foul the lucrative corporate market that uses T1 for data and voice multiplexing [1]. In this case the telcos have an incentive to not advance internet connectivity at home. The enormous startup costs for a firm to enter the telephone industry are prohibitive. It is not possible for a firm to build and wire an entirely separate, independent phone network that is able to compete with the networks owned and operated by the telephone companies. There is therefore little, if any at all, competition in the telephone industry to lower the cost and increase the availability of broadband services.

Unfortunately, the high cost of providing every U.S. rural area with a high-speed fiber backbone to replace the current infrastructure prevents it from being a viable option for the government to equalize the digital divide. It is my belief that the most practical solution to bridge the gaps in bandwidth availability is to let community organizations build and maintain their own networks. The establishment of municipal-area networks can bring broadband to remote neighborhoods much more rapidly than commercial companies can, force more competition among the telephone companies, and provide for a greater sense of community.

The Last Mile

The "last mile" is often considered to be the greatest barrier to bringing high speed internet connections to households. This is the link between the Internet Service Provider and the computer in the home. Traditionally the last mile was provided by the existing copper telephone lines home users dialed into the ISP's server via the telephone company’s private telephone conduit. The advent of new technologies, however, has presented additional means to cover the "last mile". Coaxial cable used to transmit television signals can now also be used to carry internet traffic. This option, much like copper wire broadband solutions such as DSL, is dependent on the motive of the cable company who owns the cable network to invest in the necessary infrastructure to accommodate high speed internet traffic. Community networks that have been established thus far have typically chosen to combat the last mile problem with a wireless solution, or by installing their own physical network of wires (in some cases, even fiber optics). For obvious cost reasons, urban centers have and will typically choose fiber optics; rural areas go with wireless. Either choice provides for a scalable solution to the last mile problem, and would protect participating community members from future "digital discrimination" by the large corporations.

More Competition = Better Choices

Establishing community networks would not hurt the Internet Service Provider industry. Indeed, in some aspects, the industry would benefit from the increased competition.

A user connected to a community network is connected only to the computers within the network. The hub (or hubs) of the community network in turn have access to the Internet. However, accessing the Internet would require service from an ISP. Traditional services such as maintaining e-mail servers, web page hosting, and domain name registration would still be in the arena of ISP's. ISPs would now be in the position to market their services at the community level. They need only have a POP (Point Of Presence) in the community they wish to do business in. Being a non-profit organization, those in charge of the community network would offer ISP's points of presence in their community for a much lower charge than the telcos typically offer them today.

Just as it is not free to send a letter via the U.S. Postal Service, municipal networks should not be free of charge to their respective communities. Funding for them can be accomplished through local taxes, or on a metered bandwidth basis (much like the electric utilities charge). If the network fails to provide adequate service for its subscribers, then competing commercial companies would gain opportunities to offer their services. For example, U.S. citizens are free to ship a letter via Federal Express Next Day Air rather than with the U.S. Postal Service. Likewise, they would be free to choose the internet service plan they feel suits their needs best. Note, however, that all U.S. citizens have equal access to a USPS mailbox; the same can not be said for Federal Express drop-off / receiving locations.

Municipal network initiatives should be funded in part by the federal government. They should not operate on federal funds though. For instance, funds for a consulting company to explore establishing a municipal network in a rural area should be appropriated by federal sources. In addition, certain standards for connectivity should be created by the government, and municipal governments should do all within their realms to comply with these standards.

Social Benefits of Neighborhood Networking

The internet has become notorious for its ability to exchange information. With the advent of broadband internet services, the internet is beginning to establish itself as an alternate communication channel. Any person who is "connected" to it is a member, and there are virtually no restrictions if you choose to communicate using it.

While the internet's limitless communication possibilities makes the world seem smaller geographically, many social critics argue that our society is becoming increasingly detached from the "real" world. A person on the internet in Los Angeles is just as close to a person on the internet in New York as they are to a person down the street from them.

The establishment of community networks would benefit the sense of real community. Many people would not feel the need to wander off into "cyberspace" to find company. Computer "relationships" within the community would grow, and in turn, real person to person contact would be more likely to follow.


Several community networks in the U.S. speak for themselves. In Grant County, WA a municipal network, called Zealous Innovators of Public Power (ZIPP), was created after much frustration with local telcos, Verizon and Qwest [3]. The residents wanted broadband for every area of the county, not just in the areas the two companies deemed profitable to offer it in. ZIPP will offer full telecommunication services, including high speed internet services, over the fiber optics network it is currently building.

In Bristol, VA, a high speed data network was developed to attract the high tech job industry into staying within the community [4]. The city had feared that many of the high tech companies within the area would soon leave due to the lack of internet infrastructure being offered by the local telcos. The telecommunication providers in the area in turn filed suit against the Bristol Utilities Board for being harmed by the "unfair competition". The Bristol Utilities Board, interestingly, was not hesitant to allow commercial businesses make use of the network they had established. In an important decision, the judge ruled in the Bristol Utilities Board favor.

The struggle with my ISDN line should not have been necessary. Had I not been determined and computer literate, I would never have realized the benefits of a faster internet connection. Presently, an ISDN line is not mandatory to function in society. In the years to come, however, something much faster than an ISDN line will be imperative. By default, the telephone companies have been designated as the architects and contractors for the information superhighway. It is the responsibility of community members and government officials to step up, and make sure that all areas have access to this highway.


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