skip to main bit
a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



Which is more stupid, me or the network?

I was working late at the ISP Virgin Net (which would later become Virgin Media), when James came in, looking a bit sheepish.

“Do you know where we could find a long ethernet cable?” How long? “About as wide, as, well,” and then he named a major London thoroughfare.

It turned out that one of the main interlinks between a UK (competitor) ISP and the rest of the Net was down. Their headquarters was one side of this main road, and for various reasons, most of the Net was on the other. Getting city permission to run cable underneath the road would have taken forever, so instead they had just hitched up a point-to-point laser and carried their traffic over the heads of Londoners. Now the network was severely degraded, due to unseasonable fog.

The solution was straightforward. They were going to string a gigabit ethernet cable across the road until the fog cleared. No-one would notice, and the worse that could go wrong would be a RJ45 might fall on someone’s head. Now their problem was simpler: who did they know in the UK internet community had a really really long ethernet cable?

I cannot yet work out whether being around when the Internet was first being rolled out is a disadvantage in understanding the terrific complexities and expenses of telco rollout, or a refreshing reality-check. I can’t speak for now, but ten years ago, much of the Net was held together by porridge and string in this way.

(Also, in my experience, most of the national press, and all of the major television networks. All I saw of the parliamentary system suggested the same, and everything anyone has ever read by anyone below the rank of sergeant in the military says exactly the same about their infrastructure. Perhaps something has changed in the intervening ten years. Who knows?)

Anyway, I’ve been reading the San Francisco city’s Draft feasibility study on fiber-to-the-home, which is a engaging, clear read on the potential pitfalls and expenses of not only a municipal-supported fiber project, but any city-wide physical network rollout. I love finding out the details of who owns what under the city’s streets (did you know that Muni, the city’s bus company, has a huge network of fiber already laid under all the main electrified routes? Or that there’s an organization that coordinates the rental of space on telephone poles and other street furniture is called the Southern California Joint Pole Committee?)

It’s also amusing to find out Comcast and AT&T’s reaction to the city getting involved in fiber roll-out:

Comcast does not believe that there is a need in San Francisco for additional connectivity
and believes that the market is adequately meeting existing demand. According to Mr.
Giles, the existing Comcast networks in the Bay Area contain fallow fiber capacity that is
currently unused and could be used at a later date if the demand arises.

AT&T does not recognize a need for San Francisco to consider either wireless or FTTP
infrastructure. The circumstances that would justify a municipal broadband project simply do not exist in San Francisco. Service gaps are perceived, not real, according to Mr. Mintz, because AT&T gives San Francisco residents and businesses access to: DSL , T1, and other copper based services from AT&T and Fiber based services such as OptiMAN that deliver 100Mbps to 1 Gbps connectivity to businesses that will pay for it.

My interest in it is more about the scale of any of these operations. The city will take many years to provide bandwidth, and the telco and cable providers are clearly not interested in major network upgrades.

But does rolling out bandwidth to those who need it really require that level of collective action? I keep thinking of that other triumph of borrowed cables and small intentions, Demon Internet, the first British dialup Internet provider, who funded a transatlantic Internet link by calculating that 1000 people paying a tenner a month would cover the costs.

The cost of providing high-speed Internet to every home in San Francisco is over $200 million, the study estimates. But what is the cost of one person or business making a high-speed point-to-point wireless connection to a nearby Internet POP, and then sharing it among their neighbourhood? Or even tentatively rolling out fiber from a POP, one street at a time? I suspect many people and businesses, don’t want HDTV channels, don’t want local telephony, and don’t want to wait ten years for a city-wide fiber network rolled out: they just want a fast cable on their end, with the other end of the cable plugged into the same rack as their servers. And if stringing that cable over the city meant sharing the costs with their upstream neighbours, or agreeing to connect downstream users and defray costs that way, well, the more the merrier. At least we won’t have DSL speeds and be slave to an incumbent’s timetable, and monopolistic pricing and terms and conditions.

I don’t think I would even think such a higglety-pigglety demand-driven rollout would be doable, if I hadn’t seen the Internet burst into popular use in just a matter of months in much the same way. But is the network — and demand — still ‘stupid‘ enough to allow that kind of chaotic, ground-up planning? Monopoly telcos won’t back a piecemeal plan like that for business reasons; cities won’t subsidise it, I fear, because it’s beneath their scale of operation, is too unegalitarian for the public, and undermines their own control of the planning of the city. But if it is conceivable and it is cost-effective, neither should be allowed to stand in its way.

5 Responses to “Which is more stupid, me or the network?”

  1. James Says: is an international cable link for Australia funded by several mid-tier ISPs. I don’t know what the UK situation is like, but the cost of internet access here is constrained by international bandwidth, leading to fairly miserly monthly quotas. Just about everyone who wants it can get 10mbps+ ADSL, limited only by the physical size of telephone exchanges – the FCC really messed up when it stopped mandating DSL line-sharing.

  2. Kevin Marks Says:

    I really like the idea of ad hoc fibre (I first wrote about it here: ) but we’ll need to get the cities to revoke the local monopolies they grant on running cables and fibre on poles.
    This experiment in Ottawa put the cost at under $2,000/house, which is less than I’ve spent on replacing fences at home this month, and around what people spend on a computer or HDTV. If having fibre means you’re peered and aren’t paying ISP + phone fees monthly, it could reach breakeven very quickly.

  3. Gavin Says:

    Ah, fond memories, and no I’ve not seen much better porridge since: we now talk to people about multi-clouding rather than multi-homing. The great thing about BigCorp’s saying “no one will ever want X” is that it leaves lots of space for everyone to build something – being a good example of how £60 could change the world.

  4. nick s Says:

    Ah, ad hoc rooftop ethernet. They’ve done it here in places, though it’s easier to manage surreptitiously, what with the American habit of above-ground cabling. Reminds me of the cantenna plan I had to mesh broadband to a wee island off the west coast of Canada…

  5. Danny O’Brien’s Oblomovka » Blog Archive » bandwidth and storage and europe and america Says:

    […] doing my reading into fiber in San Francisco, I’d learnt a couple of things: firstly, there’s a lot of fiber around, actually, and secondly, a […]


petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.