One of the biggest weaknesses of today’s Internet is its reliance on centralized providers. Getting Internet access at home usually requires signing up with one of the few, if you’re even lucky to have more than one, Internet service providers (ISPs). In my area, for example, the only real options are Comcast or CenturyLink. CenturyLink only offers Digital subscriber line (DSL) services so the only actual option for me, assuming I want access speeds above 1Mbps, is Comcast. My situation isn’t unique. In fact it’s the norm.
The problem with highly centralized systems such as this are numerous, especially when you consider how cozy most ISPs are with the State. Censorship and surveillance are made much easier when a system is centralized. Instead of having to deal with a bunch of individuals to censor or surveil Internet users the State only has to make a few sweetheart deals with the handful of ISPs. Another issue with heavily centralized systems is that users are at a severe disadvantage. The entire debate surrounding net neutrality is really only an issue because so little competition exists in the Internet provision market. If Comcast wants to block access to Netflix unless I pay an additional fee there really isn’t much I can do about it.
Many consider to this nightmare proof that the market has failed. But such accusations are nonsense because the market isn’t at work here. The reason so little competition exists in the Internet provision market is because the State protects current ISPs from competition. It’s too easy for a massive regulatory entity such as the State to put its boot down on the fact of centralized service providers.
Does all this mean an uncensored, secured Internet is impossible to achieve? Not at all. The trick is to move away from easily identified centralized providers. If, for example, every Internet users was also a provider it would make it practically impossible for the State to effectively control it. That’s what mesh networks can offer and the idea is becoming more popular every day. Denizens of New York City have jumped onboard the mesh network bandwagon and are trying to make local ISPs irrelevant:
The internet may feel free, but it certainly isn’t. The only way for most people to get it is through a giant corporation like Comcast or Time Warner Cable, companies that choke your access and charge exorbitant prices.
In New York City, a group of activists and volunteers called NYC Mesh are trying to take back the internet. They’re building something called a mesh network — a makeshift system that provides internet access. Their goal is to make TWC totally irrelevant.
The hardest part about establishing a mesh network is achieving critical mass. A mesh network needs a decent number of nodes to begin being truly useful. That’s why it makes sense to start building mesh networks in very densely populated areas such as New York City. If the necessary critical mass is achieved in a few major metropolitan areas it will become feasible to bypass centralized ISPs by connecting various regional mesh networks together.
Looking at NYC Mesh’s map of active nodes it seems like they’ve already established pretty decent coverage considering the organization has only been around since January of 2014. If they can keep up this pace they could soon become a viable alternative to local centralized ISPs.