Good news: True choice is emerging in broadband

Innovative projects in mesh networking, free public Wi-Fi, and a statewide open-access network could help subvert cable monopolies

Good news: True choice is emerging in broadband
Altmann/ Pixabay

Tired of high cable prices, slow Internet speeds, and the threat of data caps? Cable monopolies make these a fact of life in many American communities. While their dominance is in little danger of crumbling any time soon, a variety of projects are underway that could change people's Internet experiences for the better.

For one, if the folks at NYC Mesh get their way, Time Warner Cable could see its monopoly in New York City subverted. As Motherboard reported this week, the group is setting up a DIY network that relies on "mesh" routing to create a Wi-Fi zone covering large parts of New York City.

NYC Mesh currently has about 40 routers on the network and more than 100 people waiting for an install. (The largest mesh network in the world is believed to be Spain's, a free, community-owned network of roughly 30,000 nodes.)

What could turn NYC Mesh from an interesting hobby into an eventual alternative to Time Warner are the agreements it has struck with two massive Internet exchanges to install two "super nodes" with ranges of several miles.

"They would be connecting us directly into the backbone of the Internet," NYC Mesh's Brian Hall said. "We've met a lot of helpful people in high places willing to donate bandwidth and to give us cheap space on a couple Internet exchange places in downtown Manhattan. It's quite exciting because we'll get cheap Internet and can broadcast it to Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan."

By connecting directly into the backbone of the Internet, NYC Mesh could become its own ISP. A $95 investment in a router installed on the rooftop that connects to the super node would yield download speeds of more than 100Mbps -- faster than many Time Warner options. Hall told Motherboard he's planning on charging people a modest maintenance fee ("we're thinking like $10 a month or something") to join.

"Everyone seems to hate Time Warner, that's the thing that unifies the city," Hall said. "It's going to be a while before we replace Time Warner, but there's some hope of it happening."

Meanwhile, LinkNYC -- another innovative project in the Big Apple -- this month unveiled the first of 4,550 Wi-Fi kiosks that will be set up throughout the city's five boroughs over the next four years. These "phone booths of the future" will provide free Wi-Fi to anyone within 150 feet of a kiosk, as well as free phone calls, USB charging, and a tablet for Web browsing. Smartphones that use the Wi-Fi will have access to an encrypted network.

With their 1-gigabit Internet speeds, the hubs promise to be much faster than most New Yorkers have experienced, according to Colin O'Donnell, chief innovation officer at Intersection, the company that created the kiosks. O'Donnell estimates that 510 structures will be deployed by mid-summer.

If that's not enough to like, digital advertising displays on the sides of the kiosks, which will subsidize the ad-free Internet browsing, are projected to bring the city $500 million in revenue in the first 12 years of the contract.

At the state level, an ambitious public-private partnership known as KentuckyWired is building a 3,400-mile "middle mile" network that will link the state's 120 counties. Kentucky regularly ranks near the bottom nationally for broadband availability, service, and cost, but by stringing fiber-optic cables on existing utility poles KentuckyWired aims to bring service to many parts of the state as early as this summer and to provide the entire state with fast Internet service by 2018. However, funding issues jeopardize the project's future.

"The potential to tap into the global economy, compete for higher-paying jobs, collaborate with researchers across the globe, take classes online, or access increased medical care make KentuckyWired one of the most important infrastructure projects for all of Kentucky," said then-governor Steve Beshear when he unveiled the project last year.

The partnership won an award last month for the nation's most innovative public infrastructure financing project.

Since KentuckyWired "is an open-access network, the first of its kind in the nation, existing or newly created private or public service providers will be able to tap into the network to serve customers, " Kentucky Living writes. 

That sounds suspiciously like competition -- which explains why incumbent ISP AT&T, abetted by advocacy groups funded by the Koch brothers, has filed a protest aimed at stopping the project. This isn't the first time that broadband bullies have tried to gang up on states and municipalities that try to introduce broadband competition. 

It remains to be seen, writes the Lexington Herald Leader, whether the new Republican governor Matt Bevin will "choose to protect the turf of Kentucky's telecoms and cable companies, or proceed with a bipartisan plan for giving Kentucky companies and entrepreneurs an important tool to succeed in the modern economy."

If certain Republican Senators have their way, the country's Internet would remain stalled in the 20th century. ISPs protested the Federal Communications Commission's decision last year to raise the bar for broadband from 4Mbps to 25Mbps, and their allies in Congress are still trying to reverse the course of progress.

In a letter to the FCC this week the senators argued that American consumers don't need speeds that fast. Bear that in mind should you try to simultaneously connect your multiple devices to the Internet at 4Mbps.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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