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June 19, 2006

America’s Antiterrorist Network

Now doesn’t “America’s Antiterrorist Network” sound better than “Net Neutrality”? Maybe not if you’re on one of our two left coasts but it certainly does anywhere else.  The difference that nomenclature makes was one of the few areas of agreement on the net neutrality issue at a fascinating discussion on Public Policy and Innovation sponsored by Union Square Ventures.

The problem posed by duopoly ownership of much of communication access in the United States goes beyond whether Google has to pay extra somehow for being googled. The problem is already manifest in the high price Americans pay for inferior access (compared to other developed and some developing countries).  And it is a national security problem. 

Our communication infrastructure did poorly on 9/11: the phone network, despite heroic efforts, buckled temporarily with the loss of several switches; poor radio communication cost rescuers their lives; cell towers were overburdened; the Internet did reasonably well.  9/11 was unexpected and, to most of us, unimaginable so it’s hard to assess much blame for these failures.

We knew Hurricane Katrina was coming.  The traditional networks failed badly in Katrina and haven’t yet been fully repaired.  Phone lines were literally drowned and/or inaccessible because of evacuation orders.  The Bells are fiercely resisting efforts to force them to use modern technology to serve their customers better next time. Cell towers didn’t have adequate supplies of diesel to keep their standby generators running. Traditional wireline Internet access was down.

Some of this was technology failure; some was just poor planning.  WWLTV had set up emergency and backup emergency facilities.  They had adequate fuel and provision to put up their staff for a month if need be.  They never left the air.  Equally important, they quickly worked with Yahoo! to make their local coverage available to the residents of a city in exile no matter where in the country they were and to the rest of the world as well.  NOLA.com was an extension of traditional newspaper coverage by other means.  That’s the power of the Internet; we may have more cities in exile.

A meshed WiFi network was quickly created in the week after the hurricane hit.  That network is still key in the recovery of the city.  You can read here about efforts by BellSouth to shut it down through Louisiana legislation and how the network, at least for now, will be extended by EarthLink.

We know that hurricanes and earthquakes and fires will continue to happen and probably more terrorist attacks as well.  We can’t leave our ability to respond in the hands of those whose most important concern is the continued ability to collect duopoly rent.

Those of us who are optimists believe that competition will rapidly solve the problems caused by duopoly.  Pessimists say that we won’t get rid of the duopoly and/or that competition doesn’t work in providing universally needed infrastructure (roads, for example) so we need either extensive reregulation or government ownership. “Do we want FEMA operating our communication infrastructure?” someone asked at USVSessions. Andy Kessler suggests using eminent domain to seize the poorly run assets of the monopolists.

I think we’d end up overpaying for outdated assets – much of whose value comes from rights of way we have granted.  I’m still an optimist who believes in competition.  But from where?

New Orleans helps point the way: meshed WiFi networks.  They’re comparatively cheap: cost in the millions per city which is nothing for a municipal project or compared to what FEMA is spending to NOT leave us very well prepared.  They can be built extremely quickly since you don’t need to tear up streets – just need access to municipally owned structures like light poles to put antennas on.  A city can be unwired (politics aside) in less time than it takes to build a new bridge.

Meshed WiFi survives.  Not every node of course but the system as a whole which is what counts.  Like the Internet itself, the survivability of a meshed WiFi network depends on a profusion of cheap components, no one of which is a single point of failure, rather than expensive invulnerable components.  The networks are self-healing so there is no central control which might be accidentally knocked out by a hurricane or purposely targeted by a terrorist.

Power is a problem.  At least some nodes need to have solar panels, backup generators, and/or little windmills – preferably a mix of all three.  For security reason, it’s as important that the power supply be distributed as it is for the communications resources.

WiFi, of course, can be use to access the phone network (VoIP), the Internet, private intranets, and even to supplement or bridge between radio networks.

National security aside, these WiFi networks would provide some of the needed commercial competition to the current access duopoly.

Dwight Eisenhower’s greatest skill as a general was logistics.  It’s no exaggeration to say that American factories as well as American soldiers and American technology won World War II.  But Ike knew how hard it had been during the war to move goods within the USA from supply to factory to port.  As President he championed the National Defense Highway System aka The Interstates.  Not incidentally, these were a key element of US economic success two generations ago.  Now, for both defense and economic reasons, it’s time for America’s Antiterrorism Network.

Starting this would be a worthwhile diversion of FEMA funds – particularly those targeted to rebuilding or strengthening the obsolete networks of today. That’s why the patriotic name.  But much can be done locally or by private providers working with cities like Google in San Francisco, MetroFi in Portland, or EathLink in New Orleans.

Brilliant Professor Yochai Benkler of Yale, who was at the USVSessions2 event, has postulated a survivable network of not just access but also storage and computing power.  Look how well distributed search and storage networks like Napster and Kazaa survive attempts by powerful private entities and governments to shut them down, he says.  Good point.  He envisions these networks consisting of a collaborative use of private resources including WiFi radios.  Fascinating stuff and subject for another post here.

Benkler’s collaborative network may well be where we end up.  For now, we could use a cheaper, more survivable network than we’ve got as well as a lot more competition.  WiFi mesh in America’s Antiterrorist Network is a big part of the answer.

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