Matthew Stanciu

@MatthewStanciu

The Path to Saving Net Neutrality That Nobody is Talking About

The fight for net neutrality is hopeless.

Three months ago, the FCC voted in favor of repealing the 2015 regulations that prevented internet service providers from screwing their customers over for profit despite 83% of the American public being in favor of net neutrality. The Congressional Review Act can still technically prevent the FCC’s regulations from being passed — and what they have accomplished so far is impressive— but it still has to go through President Trump’s desk before it becomes a reality. And despite net neutrality being a supposed bipartisan issue, the likelihood of President Trump signing off on killing Ajit Pai’s dream is next to nothing, as is two-thirds of Congress voting to override his inevitable veto.

Let’s say that, somehow, two-thirds of Congress votes in favor of the Congressional Review Act. Ajit Pai certainly won’t stop there. Stealing money from people and putting it in the pockets of greedy mega-corporations is literally what his entire career has been thus far. Even if the Congressional Review Act somehow succeeds, it will only be a temporary solution; a small bandage placed on a gashing wound.

Let’s say that it isn’t. The Congressional Review Act succeeds, Ajit Pai gives up, and the world is a better place now that net neutrality is here for good. That still doesn’t change the fact that 129 million Americans can only purchase Internet access from these mega-corporations that clearly show no regard for net neutrality regulations and will do anything they can to not have to follow them in order to earn more money. Is it true net neutrality if the corporations people purchase internet from actively bypass and try with all their might to dismantle net neutrality? And, more importantly, is it a true free market if half of these 129 million Americans can only purchase internet that runs at a maximum speed of 25Mbps?

The fight for net neutrality is hopeless. It sounds bleak, but it’s true.

But there’s a way to fix it. There’s a way to not only make net neutrality a permanent thing without having to worry about the FCC, but also to put an end to Internet monopolies and provide high-speed internet to everyone across the U.S.

I’m talking about decentralized internet access.

In this article, I am going to be covering what decentralized internet access is, how it will benefit the United States and the world, and how you can be a part of this new revolution.

What is decentralized internet access?

If we want to fix the problem of ISPs having monopolies on internet in so many places throughout the U.S., we need to begin by examining how exactly ISPs provide internet to consumers and why it is so difficult for consumers to just start an ISP themselves. It turns out that ISPs have two major advantages: they have connections to the Internet backbone on a national scale, and they have the infrastructure, i.e. the actual copper or fiber wires underground that go to consumers. But who says ISPs have to own the connections to the Internet backbone and the infrastructure for delivering internet to consumers? What if, instead, we could be responsible for providing internet access to each other? What if there were a way for consumers to purchase Internet directly from Internet wholesalers and sell the bandwidth to other members of their community, whether that be an entire city or simply a neighborhood or apartment complex? This is what I mean when I say “decentralized internet access”. What we can do is cut ISPs out of the equation completely.

Cutting ISPs out of the equation immediately solves two very important problems. First, because members of the community are selling internet to each other, there is much more room for competition. If you don’t like the price that one person is selling their internet at, or you are unsatisfied with the service you’re getting, you can simply choose to purchase internet from someone else in your neighborhood or area. Or, you can choose to invest a few hundred dollars in the infrastructure and sell internet yourself to other people at a better price. This brings true competition back to the internet game through small-scale capitalism because, since everyone owns the infrastructure, nobody is at the mercy of any one mega-corporation that has a monopoly on all of the Internet infrastructure. Second, members of a community owning infrastructure means engineered net neutrality. Because of the true competition decentralized internet access offers, if any one person is blocking or throttling content, their customers can simply purchase internet from someone who isn’t.

Herein lies the power of cutting ISPs out of the equation. When we as a community take action together and provide ourselves with the infrastructure that ISPs believe we can’t get from any place other than them, we immediately have a massive advantage over them. Because of this, we can not only get true net neutrality and true competition back, we can also allow for people to purchase much higher internet speeds at much lower prices. Where this really shines is in rural areas. Areas with a low population are frequently ignored by ISPs because there simply isn’t enough monetary incentive to send engineers down to lay down high-speed internet lines in those areas. But if those people can provide the internet to themselves, they won’t have to worry about how many people there are in their community. They can get high-speed internet just like the rest of the country.

How does it work?

At this point, it all sounds like a fairy tale. How can it be so easy for anyone to just provide internet to anyone else? And why didn’t this happen a long time ago?

Well, first of all, this did happen before, in Spain. In 2004, a project called Guifi started with the intent of allowing consumers to provide internet to each other. Today, they have over 32,500 working nodes across Catalonia and eastern Spain. Anyone can become a node on the network and sell internet to their neighbors, especially in rural areas. Guifi is important because it proves that an ISP-free world is possible.

Across the pond, however, nothing of that sort has really come into light. The United States’ internet is, and has always been, controlled by a few major ISPs, with a few exceptions in large metropolitan areas.

In an ideal capitalist economy, if you are unsatisfied with the service that one particular business offers, you can simply take your money elsewhere, or start your own competing business. This works just fine for small, local mom-and-pop operations, but for services that are much more complicated, such as the Internet, this is thrown out the window. You can, ideally, start your own competing ISP that never blocks, never throttles, and never screws its customers over, but that is far easier said than done. There’s a good reason why local ISPs usually don’t expand enough to compete on a nationwide scale with Comcast or Verizon: they simply don’t have the money to build the infrastructure and the connections to the Internet backbone on a national scale. Comcast and Verizon have spent the better part of 20 years building the massive network they have now. At this point, it is near impossible for any ISP that tries to compete against them to succeed, because they likely won’t be able to raise enough money to reach the level of service that Comcast and Verizon have been building for so long.

Starting a local ISP is much easier, but it still requires extensive knowledge of how the Internet networks and requires you to start your own business. It needs to be your full-time job. Some people, largely in areas such as New York or San Francisco, have taken up that challenge and have started their own competing local ISPs, but most people across the US certainly aren’t going to do that, especially in more rural areas.

Luckily, the decentralization revolution finally seems to be coming to the US in the wake of the new net neutrality rules. Two of the most innovative startups I have seen in this area are Andrena and Althea. Although they are both working to achieve the same thing, I will focus on Althea because they are a little more transparent on their website.

Althea aims to make it easy for anyone to provide internet to anyone else in their community. Essentially, they make it easy for anyone to start their own ISP without having to quit their full-time job and without having to know about how everything actually works. The end goal is to be able to invest a couple hundred dollars in the necessary hardware and broadcast internet to their neighbors.

An Althea network is composed of 4 different types of nodes:
User nodes: nodes that pay for internet access from their neighbors
Intermediary nodes: nodes that make money by forwarding internet traffic, AKA those who want to sell internet to their neighbors
Gateway nodes: nodes that purchase internet from wholesalers or otherwise obtain cheap bandwidth
Exit nodes: nodes that have a connection to the internet backbone in some form

A cool diagram from Althea’s website that explains how an Althea network works

All you have to do if you want to sell bandwidth to other people from your home and make money doing it is to invest some money into the necessary hardware that broadcasts the internet to those around you, whether that be a directional WiFi antenna, a specialized radio tower, or actual Ethernet lines in the ground. Althea is agnostic to the hardware you use as long as it can reach the end goal of sending packets to paying users. Their firmware, which runs on your router, automates and keeps track of payments using smart contracts on blockchain app platform Ethereum. It also automatically connects you to the cheapest source of Internet access using a modified version of mesh routing protocol Babel. Payments are sent entirely through Ethereum’s platform using their native cryptocurrency Ether.

Ubiquiti LiteBeam, an example of the kind of hardware you can use to send Internet to your neighbors

The fact that blockchain is being used here is a very good sign because it demonstrates the true potential of blockchain technology, far beyond a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. The use of a blockchain in an Althea network ensures that every packet being sent across the network is cryptographically verified. Smart contracts also automate payments and take care of any legal issues that may arise. This is very important because keeping track of payments and taking care of legal issues are the two things that normally require people to make starting their own ISP their full-time job and therefore make it difficult for them to start one. The ability to automate these tasks using a blockchain is what allows for members of a community to be able to buy and sell Internet to and from each other in the first place.

There is a lot more to it, and I highly recommend you check out Althea’s whitepaper or their website if you want to learn more about how exactly the network functions.

How can you be a part of it?

With the recent rise of startups such as Althea, it is easier than ever to decentralize the internet. If you feel like deploying a network in your area is a challenge you want to take up, all you have to do it shoot them an email at hello@altheamesh.com. They will walk you through how to set up one of their networks and you can set it up in your city. Once you do that, it will be easy for anyone in your community who wants to sell internet to do so, and for anyone in your community who wants to buy internet to do so. I could be your ISP, and you could be mine.

At this point in time, however, both Andrena and Althea are in early alpha stages of deployment. Andrena is currently deploying a “private beta” in Trenton, New Jersey. Althea has a couple of active test deployments around the world, but as of right now, there is only one working test network. Their software is also still in early alpha and, at this point, intermediary nodes can’t make real money yet. Althea is leading this revolution, but there’s a long road ahead before it will be complete.

The best thing you can do is to help develop businesses like Althea that are working to develop their test networks across the United States and the world. Whether that be setting up a test deployment in your city or contributing to their software if you are a developer, what decentralized internet access needs at this moment is development. This revolution is in its infancy; it needs to be built.

In the near future, when Althea is fully developed, you will be able to take action by deploying your own fully complete network in your city. You will then be able to make real money through automated Ether payments and restore Internet freedom once and for all.

This is a revolution

When 3 unelected officials can successfully override the will of 83% of the American public, it is clear that something is very wrong with our democracy. In the wake of the FCC’s decision, many people have turned to politicians to create legislation and invoke the Congressional Review Act in order to save net neutrality. Many states have even begun to pass their own legislation restoring net neutrality. But while it’s great that the citizens of this country care so much about the future of the internet, turning to politicians to solve this problem for us is naive and will not accomplish anything. Although net neutrality is supposed to be a bipartisan issue, Republican politicians are largely voting against net neutrality and Democrat politicians are largely voting for net neutrality. The fact that this is happening proves what we already know: politics are nothing more than show business. Absolutely no US politician actually cares about net neutrality. They just vote for what they think their party wants because they want to stay popular among the people who will give them the most money. Net neutrality may seem like an important issue to the Democratic party, but net neutrality wasn’t even remotely an issue to them until they noticed the outrage among the citizens of the United States and decided to cash in. And because they don’t care, Democratic lawmakers are pushing for legislation that doesn’t really solve the problem on a larger scale. Passing statewide regulations, for example, is a step in the right direction, but getting all 50 states to pass their own net neutrality regulations is near impossible, especially since politicians are voting on party lines. Not to mention that, once politicians find an issue that can gain them more popularity and earn them more money, they will immediately drop net neutrality, leaving it vulnerable once again to Ajit Pai and the FCC.

When we can’t trust the Republican party, we can’t trust the Democratic party, and we can’t trust the FCC— when we can’t trust our government — to restore what almost every person they are supposedly representing is begging for, what do we need to do? We need to take it into our own hands. This is why decentralizing the Internet is so important. Not only can we, the people, be in control of net neutrality, we can also provide cheap, high-speed internet to everyone, including people in rural areas, and rid the Internet of monopolies while we’re at it.

So, how can you take part in this revolution? You can deploy an Althea (or, if you leave near Trenton, NJ, Andrena) network in your city and encourage everyone in cities around you to do the same. Spread the word about it. The American people have proven that, when things need to be done, things will be done. This is why there are so many continued efforts by the American people to save net neutrality, and why there always will be continued efforts by the American people to save net neutrality. But instead of channeling that energy to a hopeless cause led by a corrupt and broken system, forget about politicians who don’t care about their constituents and instead channel that energy into being part of a movement that brings ISP monopolies to their knees while restoring the free and open Internet that we all need.

If the United States can get a significant number of people running a decentralized network like Althea, other countries will undoubtedly follow, including countries that are less developed than the United States. Not only can we start a revolution within the United States, we can also start a worldwide Internet revolution.

There is a foreseeable future in which everyone is in control of the Internet, not corrupt politicians and greedy corporations. And I hope that you, whether you just stumbled across this article, or are an activist who strongly cares about preserving net neutrality, will help build it.

If you enjoyed this story, or if it piqued your interest in any way, give it some claps! Help spread this story to others who will help build a decentralized future.

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