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Let’s face it: Most of us in the U.S. live in world revolving around two broadband poles. We have access to cheap, plentiful bandwidth at home, and we have access to cheap, plentiful bandwidth at work. But everywhere in between broadband access is often limited, expensive or not available at all.
Yet at any given locale in any populated area of the U.S. there can be dozens if not hundreds of potential connections around us, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or cellular networks. We don’t tap into all of those potential connections because we don’t “own” them. They belong to the homes or businesses running those Wi-Fi routers, to the device owner hiding his Bluetooth link, or to the mobile carriers operating networks you don’t subscribe to. We live in a world with enormous amounts of potential bandwidth, but also one with strictly enforced constraints on who can use it.
“We’ve been programmed to be greedy,” said Sascha Meinrath, head of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. “We’ve been taught to think we should not make a commons out of our communications even though it would be to everyone’s benefit. If you were to suddenly flip a switch and open up every Wi-Fi access point in the ten to 15 largest cities in the U.S., everyone in those cities would suddenly have free ubiquitous communications everywhere.”
Sharing isn’t just nice, it’s necessary
The idea of a broadband commons is a conversation we want to have at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference, which will take place Oct. 16-17 in San Francisco. This year we plan to delve deep into future network concepts and architectures, taking the conversation well beyond the usual discussion of 4G, Wi-Fi, or machine-to-machine (M2M) networks. We’re going to explore the technologies that will be needed to connect billions upon billions of sensors, gadgets, vehicles and even household objects. We’ll identify where we’ll get the enormous amounts of wireless capacity necessary to support those billions of devices, and how we can make that capacity cheap.
But we’re also taking a stand at Mobilize: We believe that a key the designing these future networks is to get them to coordinate their resources — in short, we need to start sharing our bandwidth.
I don’t mean that we should socialize the telecommunications industry and hand out guaranteed access like a primary school education. But if everyone were to maintain a set of broadband subscriptions — say one at home and one on mobile — and was willing to securely partition off a portion of their bandwidth and share it with users around them, then we’d suddenly find ourselves exiting the bipolar broadband world we’ve become so accustomed to.
By cooperating, our devices could pick the most efficient, fastest and cheapest connections available, instead of trying to connect to a tower a mile away. Wireless is a finicky thing. The further any given receiver is from the transmission source the more power you consume and the less overall capacity is available to everyone on the network. By crowdsourcing connections, our devices could take the shortest, most efficient route into the network core, freeing up capacity and boosting performance for everyone. We would be able to turn all of that potential bandwidth circling us at any given moment into real bandwidth we can use.
Enter the experts
At Mobilize we’ll be highlighting the companies and organizations trying to make this shared bandwidth world happen. Meinrath will explain how the Open Technology Institute is trying to create an open-source mesh-networking standard called Commotion that would allow our mobile devices and routers to coordinate their connections to the internet. He will be joined by Micha Benoliel, CEO and co-founder of Open Garden, a startup trying to tackling similar crowdsourced network technology in the private sector; and Steven Van Wel, co-founder and CEO of Karma, a new broadband mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) that encourages anyone to connect to its network whether you own a Karma device or not.
Mobilize will also investigate many of the individual network technologies that will make up the shared bandwidth future. Ericsson(s eric) North American CTO and SVP of strategy Vish Nandlall will raise the curtain on the still-ephemeral concept of 5G and explain how the mobile industry will pull back on its constant pursuit of raw speed and focus on managing the billions of connections. 5G won’t just be a single network maintaining a single link back to your phone; 5G will be a collection of networks operating in unison.
We won’t devote the whole networking discussion at Mobilize to bandwidth sharing, though I hope to get perspectives from many speakers on the topic. Android co-founder and Google(s goog) Ventures general partner Rich Miner will share his views on more disruption to come in the mobile industry. Former White House technology policy advisor Jim Kohlenberger will talk about the role of government in connecting the populace. And Nokia EVP of Here Michael Halbherr(s nok) will talk about how location technologies will be key to making sense of our ever more complex networks.
We’ll have Rob Chandhok, President of Qualcomm’s(s qcom) Internet Services and Innovation Center, and Wael Diab, senior technical director at Broadcom(s brcm). Those gentleman will detail how their respective companies will not only link the “internet of everything” but imbue it with the intelligence to make it function.
Join the conversation
We know the idea of sharing your broadband connection will be a controversial one among consumers — you pay good money for your bandwidth; why give it up to strangers? The issue of security is one reason to have doubts, but the tech industry has become quite adept at creating networks within networks. Just because you’re sharing your radio doesn’t mean your sharing the information that travels through it.
The other concern would be cost. Obviously a shared bandwidth community will have to have boundaries if there are dollar amounts attached to each megabyte, but companies like Open Garden are trying to develop community standards: you only receive the benefit of other’s bandwidth if you’re willing to give in kind. And if we could link to every available Wi-Fi access point, we’d actually spend far less time on expensive cellular networks.
We also realize that there will be resistance form the telecom industry, but not as much as you might think.
It’s not just utopian idealists and technology revolutionaries spearheading this movement. Comcast(s cmsca) is hardly a radical company, but it just implemented a shared Wi-Fi network in all of its cable markets nationwide. If you’re a Comcast customer you can tap into a partitioned connection on any other Comcast customer’s Wi-Fi router. French ISP Iliad has taken that concept further, using its customers’ home broadband connections to connect millions of mobile customers on its Free Mobile service – kicking off a price war in the normally staid French mobile market in the process.
As for consumers, we’ve already become accustomed to sharing bandwidth without realizing it. Every broadband connection is shared at some point — whether it’s a dozen mobile phones using the shared capacity of single cell or our home broadband connections merging into single fiber pipe at the central office. The internet — that thing we’re all trying to connect to in the first place — is the granddaddy of all shared networks.
We think that a broadband commons is exciting idea that could destroy the distinction between a home and mobile network and make broadband far more ubiquitous, available and cheap. If you agree — or if you think this is just socialist claptrap — please tell us in the comments section below. And please join us at Mobilize in two months at the Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco where we’ll take this debate over even further.
And yes, there will be free Wi-Fi.
Density image courtesy of Shutterstock user higyou; Commotion network image by Nina Bianchi