Cost of paranoia about broadband could be the Internet itself

by Guy Kewney | posted on 26 November 2002

"National security" - not spectrum allocation - could be the floating log that sinks the "Broadband Britain" supertanker - forcing thousands of users into setting up "parasitic" networks which everyone agrees are probably not an efficient use of airwaves.

Guy Kewney

Last week's Broadband Stakeholder conference in Birmingham gave the impression of having lost its way. Yes, there was good news - the Government was said to be "under pressure to open up more wireless access for high-speed net services in the UK." And further, "In its annual report, a group of government-appointed broadband experts said wireless should play a fundamental role in the spread of broadband services to areas currently not served by the technology."

And yes, there was bad news, with the report that the e-Envoy thinks we've got enough broadband anyway, and that there's no need for Government intervention to speed things up.

But the frightening issue is not technology, but fear itself. Specifically, fear of terrorism and fear of paedophiles, both of which subjects seem to have the authorities hypnotised.

The real threat to the Internet in the UK is the growing assumption by Governments here and in the European Union, that they can happily use the net as a surveillance mechanism to catch terrorists, and that it's easy: all they have to do is record all Internet transactions, permanently.

Technically, it's quite possible; if you log all traffic, you will discover who connected to what site, and sent mail to whom. Put all this traffic together, and you can see little sub-networks of contacts; you can find out who conspired with whom. You can even see people doing this before their plot ripens. Surely, nobody would dispute the value of this?

Well, yes; I would.

My main objection is simple enough: to do this is to create the machinery of totalitarian control. Of course you can argue that any dictator who came to power in the UK would have no trouble maintaining his iron grip anyway. True: but the way we're headed, the dictator hardly needs to have a coup to gain power in the first place. Of course things would be worse if someone like Hitler took control of Government; but the fact that things could be worse doesn't justify making them bad.

But there's a more pragmatic problem: money. The "value" of totalitarian machinery can't be judged by sentimental phrases like: "If it saves just one child from death at the hands of sexual criminals, then it is worth it" - and the problem is that the cost is high.

To keep track of all the data which the surveillance lobby wants may not be possible. Storage is incredibly cheap these days, yes; but the management of that storage isn't cheap.

Already, Government and telcos admit that there is a poor take-up of broadband. The number of exchanges modified to provide ADSL is substantial; but people aren't buying - price is often quoted as the barrier. And the alternative of Telewest and NTL looks slightly cheaper, but nobody seems to have real confidence in either company - and no wonder, really.

If we assume - conservatively, I think - that universal Internet surveillance could increase the price of broadband by 50%, the demand for high-speed Internet links will fall away - and my perception is that there is an alternative.

The alternative is "parasitic networks" or "mesh networks" - the sort of concept proposed as "frogs on lilypads" by Negroponte. You set up a wireless LAN in your house, and link it to the house next door; they link to the next house across the street, who links to the next street behind them.

Such networks can't be as efficient as one based on a fibre backbone delivering 100 megabits per second to the kerb. But the cost of a universal 10 megabit Ethernet Internet is already daunting, and much of the talk about "new spectrum allocations" is designed to give Government an excuse to postpone spending that money. And the fact is that ADSL speeds are out of date already.

Even today, there are cities in the Nordic countries, where apartment blocks have 10 megabit Ethernet broadband to every flat in the building. In five years, this will be where the advanced countries have moved, and what will be standard. Will we be able to afford that?

I think it's achievable, if people wake up and start planning it. But if we make it look really expensive, we can delay it by two, three, or more years. And in a world where the choice is ADSL or a parasitic network, I suspect the parasitic network will look attractive.

A parasitic network of 802.11a hubs would be virtually impossible to police, and wasteful of resources. But unless someone in Government wakes up, that is where they are going to push us all. Yes, we need to monitor predatory child-molesters, and yes, we need intelligence about terrorists. But not solutions which are implemented "at any cost" - someone has to actually do the budget and talk sense.