The network isn’t ubiquitous


and probably never will be.

My brother has been moving house this week, which has caused him to spend a certain amount of time off net, and to get very angry with BT (though it all got sorted out in the end [1]). Sadly my suggestion to get a Vodafone 3G dongle doesn’t seem to have worked out as an interim measure – coverage isn’t always what it looks like on the maps (I have similar issues with my Three data service, which is great on my commute and in the office, but patchy to problematic if I ever need it at home).

It seems that salvation has come in the form of an open WiFi network that he can mooch off, though I wonder how long that state of affairs will remain in place. There seem to be three actors at work here:

  1. Consumers (demand) would like to have ubiquitous access everywhere. They’re prepared to pay something to get this, but would prefer for things to be free at the point of access. Consumers desperately want the fallacies of distributed computing to be true. A lot of the time consumers sit within their little bubbles of connectivity which makes it seem like everything is OK, but then a trip abroad [2] or a house move comes along and burst the bubble.
  2. Telcos (supply) have to deal with the fallacies, and making those fallacies appear to be true costs some serious money. The most gross distortions appear to arise around roaming charges, where the commonly accepted model seems to be similar to the hotel telephone – let’s screw the travelling user, they can always expense it to their company. I suspect that this isn’t a well calculated mechanism to maximise revenue, and that there’s something like the Laffer curve that applies to data charges; but the telcos I know aren’t like Formula 1 teams and investment banks, and don’t employ armies of quants to figure this stuff out.
  3. The media distribution industry (an externality to this market) would very much like the network and its fallacies to pack up, go home and let them return to a comfy oligopoly over physical distribution of content. Through their bought and paid for politicians they hope to get international law and private militias to interfere in the running of the network. If an entire town can be booted off the net for the ‘crime’ of one person then extending those bubbles of connectivity is going to get harder rather than easier. Proposed ‘three strikes’ laws would mean that only an idiot would leave a WiFi connection open, as any intended generosity could quickly turn into disconnection for them and their entire household.

Of course this is an overly simplistic view of the picture. There are complications:

  • Telcos like BT would like to offer services over unlicensed spectrum, which is why they incentivise users of their newer WiFi routers to provide virtual access points for OpenZone subscribers and FON users.
  • There is a 4th actor in the picture – the bad guy (who is another externality to the market). The bad guy doesn’t care if you meant to share your network; if it’s open or weakly protected (e.g. with WEP [3]) then it’s his for the taking. The bad guy won’t confine himself to a email collection and a some light surfing, if he wants to download a few gigs of movies [4] over bittorrent then he will. This is troublesome in a world of capped tariffs, and huge problem in a world of ‘three strikes’.

Returning to the central point… We’re increasingly living in a world where the network provides many of the things we take for granted, and whilst we might not feel actual pain when it’s not there a certain degree of discomfort may arise. People talk about their ‘comfort zones’ in all sorts of contexts, but increasingly one of the many boundaries of significance will be the connectivity envelope. The laws of physics and economics will always assert their limitations, but we’re on the verge of legislation making things much worse than they need to be. Of course if you’re reading this then you’re almost certainly in a democracy where you can use your vote to push things back into shape?

[1] thanks @jobsworth

[2] it was interesting to see @doctorow asking the question I asked before about why there aren’t any shops in airport arrivals selling PAYG 3G data cards/SIMs, though so far as I can tell there isn’t a viable 3G PAYG offering at all now in the US. Of course the Acela should have WiFi just like the NXEC main line.

[3] most WEP protected access points will succumb to tools like aircrack-ng in less than 5 minutes, and all the bits you need can be bundled together in a convenient USB bootable distro like BackTrack.

[4] and let’s not even get started about what those movies might be, and how much trouble you’re in if they’re found on your hard disk rather than the bad guys (as once he 0wned your WLAN popping your C:\ drive was a doddle).

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