July 31, 2006
Wireless Warfare in the Streets
It's a pretty innocuous headline and photo, but make no mistake this is an early salvo in what looks to be a heated battle over the control of the wireless infrastructure. The cell phone service providers are on one side, the equipment makers and software companies on the other. Governments? They are both omnipresent yet conspicuously absent from the core of the debate, they seem to only have a clue as to what is happening at certain key junctures (ie when municipal WiFi discussions get serious like in SF or Philadelphia).
At the core this is an issue of information, an issue of which corporations are controlling the gateways between you and the network(s) you need to access to connect to the world. To a large extent it seems the wires are already laid down, at least for the moment it seems there is plenty of fiber in the ground and the providers are reduced to the status of commodity sellers. Net neutrality might change that, but that is an issue for another day. It is the wireless protocols that are up for grabs. So far the cellular companies have a massive lead, they have the infrastructure both to provide and to profit built up, running and accepted by the public at large.
But with that advantage comes a huge arrogance, and perhaps a short-sightedness as well. The cell companies think they can call the shots and in the process they've pushed aside the handset makers and locked the software and information technology companies out almost completely. They also have with typical phone company airs completely failed to win the confidence of their users, do you know anyone who actually likes their cell phone company?
The cell phone companies are gambling on controlling the airwaves, on staying oligarchical. This threatens a whole other group, perhaps we can call them the network idealists, the coders and hackers, activists and enthusiasts that drive the networked underground of global information projects. I call them Benkler labor, after Yochai Benkler and his theory of networked productivity.
The anti-cellular company strategy combines a hodgepodge of consumer dissatisfaction, plain old desire for better prices, Benkler labor and in places old school government public works projects into the creation of a so far mythical, but theoretically very possible, wifi meshwork. If there are enough accessible wifi hotspots overlapping each other in a giant mesh of wireless connectivity, it becomes possible to route around the cellular providers. Instead of a handful of capital intensive cellphone towers, the plan is to provide connectivity via a swarm of wifi routers connected to people's broadband lines in their homes and offices. It sounds a little precarious to me, but if you were a mid to large sized company coming face to face with the fact that your livelihood is dangerously close to being controlled entirely by a handful of cellular companies any way out probably looks like a good gamble.
At the moment at least the wifi forces are all about open technology, they are at such a disadvantage compared to the already built up and profitable cellular networks that they need every advantage they can get, and open network infrastructure is a key one. Some of the players are idealistic about it, others I suspect not, but for the moment at least this is in a large part a battle of openness versus closed and controlled access to the networks, which is what the cellular companies have now and want to keep. If the cellular companies win this battle it is tantamount to handing over your personal information to your provider. It isn't pretty, but you probably have done it already. They know where you are, or at least where your phone is. They know how to reach you. They know who you talk to, and if they wanted to I'm sure they could figure out exactly what you said, although it would not exactly be legal in the US for them to do so. All they want to do is add the contents of all your emails, web browsing and file sharing. Yeah not too much.
The stakes are high, whoever controls the pipes in which your information flows essentially occupies a position where they have the potential to exert incredible control over you. Whether that potential is realizable though is a huge issue. The wifi activists offer a solution with unclear long term ramifications. They want to ramp up the wifi network to a point somewhat akin to where the wired internet lies today. One that is relatively open, somewhat balanced but with huge weakness just beginning to emerge, as American's are learning with the current net neutrality legislation churning in congress. In other words we are on the verge of a round of corporate warfare with potential to be as messy as that "real" warfare engulfing the middle east. So pick your carrier carefully, who knows where this leads...Posted by Abe at July 31, 2006 06:59 PM