The network society is built directly upon the physical infrastructure of the networks (both Internet and mobile phone which can overlap), dominated by the ultimate network of networks - the Internet (Benkler, 2006; Castells, 2005). This physical infrastructure is a complex system of wires (telephone, cable television, and undersea cabling), which is also increasingly extended and/or substituted by satellite (such as VSAT in Africa), personal and local wireless (such as Wi-Fi and community wireless networks), mobile devices (using GPRS technology and other untethered forms of local and wide area network connection (Lessig, 2001). The Internet operates by streaming data in packets over these physical and untethered pathways from source general purpose computers and/or devices to destination computers and/or devices.
Discussions on ICTs tend to focus almost exclusively on the Internet, despite the fact that the mobile phone network had faster penetration rates in some parts of the world (especially Africa). In fact, Internet use is not growing as quickly in the developing world as in the developed world. By the end of 2007, less than one out of five people in the developing world were online, compared to 45% using mobile phones. While most mobile phones now offer Internet connectivity via GPRS, there are still millions of mobile phone users who get their mobile phone service over networks that do not connect with the Internet. As a consequence, these mobile phones, while useful at more local levels, are limited only to voice service (i.e., they cannot be used to share or exchange other types of content such as data). However, despite this seeming limitation, for some parts of the world, such as Africa, voice is still the “killer app”. Thus, while it is important to understand the context and usage of mobile phones, the discussion here will focus on the Internet infrastructure as it is this infrastructure which enables the widest degree of openness of content we are focussing on in this document.
Openness is an organizing principle of the Internet. The Internet is based on end-to-end communications transacted over an open transport network with intelligence at the ends, not within the network itself (Benkler, 2006). This particular choice of an end-to-end design is especially significant: it does not make any requirements of the data sent through the network allowing for a maximal degree of flexibility in terms of the range of activities and content that can flow over the network. It is the intelligence of the end units that determines the range of activities possible. This has allowed for unintended uses of the network architecture, unexpected innovation and creativity of the content and applications that are delivered over it and unforeseen reorganizations of human and social networks.
Importantly, the structure of the Internet could have been otherwise. The Internet originally utilized the public telephone infrastructure to connect non- co-located computers for the exchange of non-voice data. Although entirely owned by governments or corporate entities, the telephone infrastructure-based Internet was able to foster innovation and create an open, equitable and neutral commons (Lessig, 2001). These characteristics of the early Internet were largely the product of the end-to-end design as well as a policy decision by the US government to define the public switched telephone network (PSTN) as a public good and to designate the owners of the telephone wires as “common carriers.” The designation of “common carriers” allowed telephone companies to use their wires for their own voice services and to charge for use of their wires by competitors without controlling the content that was transmitted over them. This was an important part of telecommunications public policy that mitigated the cost of developing a geographically dispersed network and circumvented legal issues such as getting rights of access to telephones poles and other holdings. Most importantly, it was considered more important to increase connectivity to a common network than it was to allow for market competition. This was due to a legitimate concern that competitors would pursue only lucrative customers, effectively limiting the viability of the communications network. Thus, even though the telephone infrastructure was (and still is) entirely owned by governments and private entities, the policy effectively created a commons of information and communications flows upon which the Internet (and eventually the World Wide Web) would eventually be delivered (Lessig, 2001).
This notion of a public good has not extended to the cable Internet infrastructure, however, despite the fact that cable can be used for both upstream and downstream Internet voice and data delivery (in precisely the same way as the telephone wires can). Successful lobbying by cable providers ensured that the basic definition of the cable service was never changed and thus despite evolving into a two-way communication infrastructure the cable wires are not treated as a public good. This means that as more and more users (in both developed and developing countries) move to cable broadband service for Internet access, the control of the network (not only ownership of the wires, but control over the internal logic of the network as will be discussed in the next section) falls increasingly into the hands of private and corporate for-profit entities. These entities are subject to less regulation from national governments, are less beholden to the public interest and increasingly are subject to less competition due to corporate mergers (a problem of vertical integration which will be explored further later in this manuscript).
Even more worryingly, broadband Internet delivered via the radio spectrum has been deliberately architected for control (Lessig, 2004) not only is ownership of spectrum itself auctioned by governments and paid for by private corporations – the purchasers are also given the authority to determine how the spectrum will be used. The reasoning behind this arrangement is the dubious argument that spectrum, like diamonds, is scarce, and thus of great commercial value (which effectively makes spectrum a rivalrous and exclusionary good). However, spectrum is not scarce. The scarcity of spectrum is based solely on the inability of dumb devices to differentiate between signals on the same frequency (i.e., your car radio) – a situation remedied by the introduction of smart devices which can easily differentiate between signals on the same frequency (i.e., the iPhone, Smartphone, Pocket PC, etc.).
Thus, instead of treating spectrum as a scarce resource, the argument can be made that it is better to make the spectrum available to all as a commons, an approach known by many names, including open spectrum. Open spectrum allows for more efficient and creative use of the precious, but not scarce, resource of the airwaves: it has the potential to enable innovative services, reduce prices, foster competition, create new business opportunities, and bring our communications policies in line with our democratic ideals (Werbach, 2006). Open spectrum at the personal and local area wireless network level, in particular, can address last mile problems in areas where Internet infrastructure does not currently exist, or in areas where instability and socio-economic issues make the development, maintenance and upkeep of physical infrastructure problematic. These approaches could also alleviate the situation, particularly in Africa, where mobile phone use (without GSM) is penetrating at a faster rate than Internet use. While voice and SMS are dominant, these users are locked out of the larger Internet and all its associated benefits.
These last mile opportunities in open spectrum are particularly applicable for the developing context. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), for example, there were 192.5 million mobile phone subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa in 2006 – concentrated in urban areas. Broadening the spectrum commons would allow a proliferation of additional wireless systems to penetrate the underserved rural and remote communities, as well as offer true competition to expensive VSAT options in both urban and rural areas (Werbach, 2004). Wireless communications networks (especially community-access wireless networks) also have the potential to allow community members to act collectively and to foster social formation and a heightened sense of community (Cho & Hanna, 2008). This leads to retention of local people, such as giving teachers the chance to connect to distant family members, reducing the need for them to leave the community. Finally, wireless networks drive innovation and creativity in developing the network structure, building local capacity and skills through technical support and entrepreneurship, and finally experimentation (Cho & Hanna, 2008).
Recently, especially in developing countries, local alternatives are being sought to address last mile issues and to increase local access to the Internet and to mobile phone networks. Innovative models such as wireless mesh networks and mobile ad hoc networks offer strategies for connecting more people at a lower cost at the local level. An example of wireless mesh networks is The Wireless Roadshow, a project which enables local communities and non-profits in developing countries to plan, deploy and maintain local, sustainable network infrastructure to enable voice and data communications, both at the local community network scale and over the Internet as well. Less recently, are the telecentre and other access point initiatives which provide the last piece of Internet infrastructure to offer Internet access to those who cannot afford a computer and/or private access. These public access facilities arguably fill a need that is underprovided by the market in areas of scarce resources where people cannot afford private Internet access points.
Next: Layer 1: Logical layer