THE CULTURE OF BROADBAND
by Felix Stalder
[A slightly editied version was published as: The battle for Broadband,
in Mute Magazin #24, May 2002, pp.
Remember the 1990? Technology was supposed to revolutionize everything in
one fell swoop, finally eradicating all those pesky problems that bedevil
modern life. The fulfillment of all our needs and wants was just around the
corner. No one sang the praise of this revolution higher than George Gilder,
the messiah of bandwidth, who dreamed of the "telecosm" with its "crystal
cathedrals of fiber." Unfortunately, that didn't exactly pan out. Life is
still not hassle-free and these days broadband makes headlines with spectacular
bankruptcies and lousy service, rather than as the road to salvation.
As usual, the future doesn't descend on us fully formed, rather it arrives
limping. It's a messy mix of incompatible standards, buggy technologies,
and a nagging uncertainty whether the real thing is still coming or whether
it's already over. But one overpriced cable connection, one hard-to-install
DSL or ISDN link, one experimental wireless network at a time, broadband
is becoming an unequally distributed reality; and the contours of this reality
The Internet's architecture used to be based on the model of client and server.
The server runs on a powerful machine that is continuously connected to the
network. It stores the data and services that are requested by the client.
The client is relatively weak and sporadically connected to the network,
a browser displaying the web through a dial-up connection.
Broadband supports a new network architecture: peer-to-peer. Contrary to
the old dial-up, broadband connections are always on, even at home. Add to
this the power of an average PC which has increased to a level that it can
as well double as a simple server and still do all the work of a normal PC.
Both clients and servers are now running on powerful, continuously connected
File sharing was the first application to define the culture of broadband.
Imagine Napster on dial-up. Impossible. However, file sharing is not
the only peer-to-peer application. Any aspect of a computer, not just its
content, can be shared or pooled amongst peers in a broadband network. The
sharing of processing power, CPU cycles, is the next obvious example. The
clustering of PCs can bring supercomputing power to people and problems outside
elite research centers. When the search for extraterrestrial intelligence
was abandoned by NASA, seti@home revived it without any of NASA's high-end
machines. Rather, it distributed the number-crunching across thousands of
normal PCs, each doing a small segment of the job in parallel. Internet users
volunteered spare capacities of their machines for the thrill of peering
into deep space and having a cool screen saver. More such applications are
popping up: brute force attacks on encryption keys - until recently the domains
of super expensive super computers - are now feasible in a network of clustered
PCs. All that is needed is a program for coordinating the distribution of
tasks and a pool of volunteers, both not very hard to find. Other peer-to-peer
architectures such as Freenet, an anonymous publishing network, share storage
space across the network, making it in effect impossible to physically locate
files because they move freely from peer to peer across the network.
Broadband's propensity towards peer-to-peer is good news for anyone interested
in distributed applications. Is this return of the Internet utopias?
Of course, not everyone sees broadband as the enabler of decentralized, bottom-up
computing. On the contrary, most of the companies that lay down the infrastructure
have a very different, decidedly top-down vision: Interactive TV. For
them, broadband means pumping out massive video files, a kind of rerun of
the video-on-demand failures of the 1980s. Across all technological changes,
this persistent vision has one constant component: pay-per-view.
The slump in advertisement is not (only) what puts pressure on companies
to charge users for access to their content. It's the broadband environment
itself. Bandwidth, despite all excess capacities, is expensive and pumping
out video streams to the masses eats up a lot of it. Don't expect any provider
without deep pockets to do that for a long time. Contrary to traditional
broadcast, Internet streaming scales poorly. Each new user costs extra, because
each users draws an individual feed. The more users the higher are the bandwidth
costs. Giving away multimedia content is prohibitively expensive. Moreover,
as the media files become richer, the production costs rise. Shooting a great
video tends to be more expensive than writing a good text.
Both of these factors are driving the slow emergence of the pay-per-view
Internet, despite user reluctance. RealNetworks, for example, claims to have
attracted about 500,000 people for the its pay-per service. For $10 per months,
subscribers get access to rich media content from ABCNews.com, CNN.com, and
other majors. The "Passport" platform - a one-stop digital identity service
managed by our friends at Microsoft - is all about making the pay-per-use
vision seamless and "user friendly." Pass me the popcorn, please.
As the content companies begin to implement pay-per-use services, they want
to know a lot more about their users: where are they going, how long are
they staying there, are they paying for content, or engaging in "piracy?"
Thanks to mergers and alliances content providers and ISPs have become closely
aligned, if not the same altogether. AOL Time Warner is, perhaps, the most
extreme case, but it is representative for this general trend of convergence.
This comes in handy for monitoring the users' online behaviour for billing
It also helps to construct "walled gardens", that is, deliberately divide
the network into favoured and disadvantaged zones. One way of building such
walls is to make access to services offered by the same conglomerate or its
corporate partners faster than to those offered by competitors. This can
be done with the help of a new generation of "intelligent" routers that enables
the network owners to deliver some data packets faster than others. For instance,
Time magazine might load faster than Newsweek for AOL customers in the future.
While this is not out-right censorship, it will certainly affect browsing
patterns, particularly since, the manipulation is virtually invisible to
the end user. Whether or not providers are allowed to twist access in such
ways depends a lot on regulation. Cable companies, for example, tend to be
are under little or no obligation to treat all traffic equally, whereas telecom
companies have traditionally been bound by laws to act as "common carriers"
that must provide the same quality of service to everyone.
Another potentially ugly side of broadband culture is paranoia. With home
computers permanently connected to the network, a whole new class of Internet
users can become targets of malicious hackers. Most users lack the skills
to secure their own machine. They are especially at risk to have their machines
compromised and, for example, turned into launching pads for more serious
attacks. Here's where the paranoia sets in. As more users feel threatened
by something they essentially do not understand, popular support could increase
for though new law enforcement measures. For the majority of users, it will
be easier to support harsher penalties than to maintain complex firewalls.
The overhyped threat of hackers can easily be turned into a more general
attack on civil liberties online. Together, the push towards pay-per-use
and an escalating fight against "hackers" and "pirates" might squeeze privacy
out of the emerging culture altogether.
HOW GOOD, HOW BAD AND HOW UGLY?
The contours sketched here don't add up to a coherent picture. The culture
of broadband is still emerging, rather than already fully formed. To some
degree, distributed peer-to-peer services and pay-per-use services are conflicting
with each other. Even after being acquired by Bertelsman, Napster is still
off the wires, because the underlying conflict between freedom and control
is hard to resolve. Technologies and their applications are still in search
of a stable configuration. However, concerted action will be necessary to
support the good, avoid the bad and battle the ugly.
Felix Stalder is a researcher and writer living in Toronto. He is a director
of Openflows, a moderators of the nettime mailing list and a human being.