Robert Cringley makes an excellent point: we should own the "last-mile" infrastructure ourselves. Instead of farming it out to that bunch of robber-bandits the phone and cable companies, we should build and own it ourselves, co-op style. He quotes Bob Frankston as proposing that this last-mile infrastructure be implemented as Fibre To The Home. (Unfortunately the second half of his article meanders off into a meaningless rant about Microsoft that does nothing to further the discussion of community-provided infrastructure.)
Now, self-built-and-maintained local-loop optic-fibre infrastructure may be feasible in the more densely populated parts of the USA, and possibly Europe, but no way here in Africa, least of all in a rural area such as I choose to live in. Far more reasonable for us to look to WiFi for that answer. Wireless makes a lot more sense in most locations, anyway, in that the maintenance burden is much smaller, being localised to the wireless nodes themselves. Fon is targetting precisely this space, and I wish them much success with the model.
The fatal weakness in the scheme is still the backbone. Fon, in common with Frankston's idea, both assume that the local loop connects to some "large infrastructure backbone" provided by ISPs who will remain neutral bit-carriers. Dream on!
Furthermore, there is the interesting (to me) question of whether it is at all possible to maintain a global internetwork during the disruptions likely headed our way as we descend from the cheap-oil plateau. It takes serious amounts of energy, time, money and organisation to maintain a large-scale wired infrastructure such as existing telephone and cable networks.
Currently my 'net access is via the state-monopoly phone company, Telkom, who are either totally bent on network control and continuing access restriction (resulting in the most expensive network access in the world!) or they are simply total incompetents: they can/will not provide proper two-way network access. It is impossible to run a server at my end of the 'net, due to the configuration of their firewalls and proxies. This is not a network! Something that telcos are constitutionally incapable of understanding due to the nature of the networks they have been running for decades.
The whole discussion of community-provided infrastructure resonates with something I have been giving quite a bit of thought lately: Internet3.0 - The Community Provided Internet.
Drawing on the theme of Web2.0, characterised by much web content being generated and provided, edited, filtered, and rated by the community, together with Frankston's idea of community-supplied last-mile wiring (whether fibre, WiFi, WiMax, laser or carrier pigeon) I believe we should be building community-owned-and-run long-haul networks - community-driven Internet backbones.
I am well aware that there have already been some successful efforts to build trans-America wireless mesh networks, and this is precisely the model I think we should adopt. I do not propose or expect that we would aim to replace existing wired infrastrucure. Wired networks have distinct reliability and bandwidth advantages over wireless; this is inherent in the physics and operating environment. We can and should, however have alternative routes for IP traffic that reside outside the hands of corporate and government control.
This last issue is difficult. Many repressive regimes would and do restrict access to wireless spectrum, including South Africa where it is technically illegal to establish a wireless link to your neighbour without a license. Licenses are unobtainable, and the charge for a license is prohibitive. Fortunately we have a strong tradition if civil disobedience in such matters!
The time to build a global wireless mesh of networks is now.