turns out network backbone markets in the US are competitive after all

by Sebastian Benthall

I’ve been depressed lately about the oligopolistic control of telecommunications for a while now. There’s the Web We’ve Lost; there’s Snowden leaks; there’s the end of net neutrality. I’ll admit a lot of my moodiness about this has been just that–moodiness. But it was moodiness tied to a particular narrative.

In this narrative, power is transmitted via flows of information. Media is, if not determinative of public opinion, determinative of how that opinion is acted up. Surveillance is also an information flow. Broadly, mid-20th century telecommunications enabled mass culture due to the uniformity of media. The Internet’s protocols allowed it to support a different kind of culture–a more participatory one. But monetization and consolidation of the infrastructure has resulted in a society that’s fragmented but more tightly controlled.

There is still hope of counteracting that trend at the software/application layer, which is part of the reason why I’m doing research on open source software production. One of my colleagues, Nick Doty, studies the governance of Internet Standards, which is another piece of the puzzle.

But if the networking infrastructure itself is centrally controlled, then all bets are off. Democracy, in the sense of decentralized power with checks and balances, would be undermined.

Yesterday I learned something new from Ashwin Mathew, another colleague who studies Internet governance at the level of network administration. The man is deep in the process of finishing up his dissertation, but he looked up from his laptop for long enough to tell me that the network backbone market is in fact highly competitive at the moment. Apparently, there was a lot of dark fiberoptic cable (“dark fiber“–meaning, no light’s going through it) laid during the first dot-com boom, which has been laying fallow and getting bought up by many different companies. Since there are many routes from A to B and excess capacity, this market is highly competitive.

Phew! So why the perception of oligopolistic control of networks? Because the consumer-facing telecom end-points ARE an oligopoly. Here there’s the last-mile problem. When wire has to be laid to every house, the economies of scale are such that it’s hard to have competitive markets. Enter Comcast etc.

I can rest easier now, because I think that this means there’s various engineering solutions to this (like AirJaldi networks? though I think those still aren’t last mile…; mesh networks?) as well as political solutions (like a local government running its last mile network as a public utility).

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