Application Content Infrastructure bypasses Internet Backbone, opens way for P2P ‘last mile’ net

Bill St. Arnaud, in a document titled A personal perspective on the evolving Internet and Research and Education Networks (a Google document “for discussion purposes only”) says that some momentous changes happened in the Internet’s structure, just when most of us weren’t looking.

Michel Bauwens sxcerpted the document into the P2P Foundation wiki and asked for people’s views.

While Bill St. Arnaud sees an opportunity for Research and Education Networks (here is an example) to become more important, he also mentions customer owned networks as a potential player, but without really developing that idea.

I have previously asked on the P2P Foundation’s Ning site, whether the Internet could be backed up in a P2P ‘cloud’ and whether such a Peernet could be separate from the Internet’s main structure.

St. Arnaud now says that the traditional Internet structure has already been hollowed out with much of the traffic no longer routing through the back bone providers, but being stored, computed and distributed in a separate network infrastructure which he calls Application Content Infrastructure (ACI). So it looks like the Internet Service Providers, those companies that connect us to the net and shuttle bits from servers to users and vice versa, are failing on two fronts. They have not invested sufficiently in the backbones and they aren’t doing their job either when it comes to making sure broad band connections, needed for video and other advanced uses, actually arrive in homes and offices.

The backbone is being bypassed by ACIs and the last mile is a notoriously unresolved problem.

Enter Customer owned networks – the P2P cloud

Could a P2P network owned by the customers of ISPs, and configured as a separate but connected communications infrastructure be the answer to the problem of bridging the last mile? I explored that question in a message to Michel and others. Here is what I wrote:

“St. Arnaud talks about the growing importance of Application Content Infrastructure (ACI) on the net, and how much of the traffic that traditionally would go over the internet backbone of internet service providers is actually being routed and computed and stored in alternative ways.

“Examples of ACIs include large distributed caching networks such as Akamai, cloud service providers such as Amazon and Azure, Application Service Providers (ASPs) like Google and Apple, Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) such as Limelight and Hulu, and social networking services like Facebook and Twitter. Many Fortune 500 companies like banks and airlines have also deployed their own ACIs as an adjunct to their own private wide area networks in order to provide secure and timely service to their customers. Most major content and application organizations have contracted with commercial ACIs or have deployed their own infrastructure. ACIs also allows the content provider to load balance demand, so that traffic in regions expressing excessive loads can be re-directed to nodes where there is spare capacity.

The end result is that with very little fanfare the Internet has been transformed so much so over the past decade that virtually all major content and every advanced application on the Internet is now delivered over an ACI independent of the traditional carrier Internet backbones.”

In effect, the document says that ISPs are following the outdated model of the phone companies but aren’t really doing their job of connecting users to the greater net with sufficient bandwidth for the content, especially video, to arrive at the end user in a proper way. It goes on to make the point that ACI or Application Content Infrastructure could be expanded, and that in conjunction with R&E (Regional and Educational) networks, that content could get even closer to the end user.

“Up to most recently the text book model of the Internet was for businesses and consumers to access the internet through a last mile provider such as telephone or cable company. Their traffic would be sent across the backbone to its destination by an Internet service provider. This model worked reasonably well in the early days of the Internet but as new multimedia content such as video and network applications evolved the current model failed to provide a satisfactory quality of experience for users in terms of responsiveness and speed. As a result a host of content, application and hosting companies invested in something for the purposes of this paper I have collectively labeled as a Application Content Infrastructure (ACI) that complemented and expanded the original Internet through the integration of computing, storage and network links.”

What is left open is how the last mile is going to function. The ISPs seem to be too busy metering their pipes and even grading traffic, giving priority to certain content and degrading the stuff that is seen as being in violation of intellectual property laws and they forget that their job includes to connect everyone with a sufficiently wide-band connection for content not to suffer degradation before arriving at the end user.

Mobile networks are mentioned as a possible solution, but with demands escalating, they may soon be running into the same trouble as current last mile technologies.

There is a mention of “customer owned networks” but with no vision of how these might work.

So I would like to make a point or two here, just for the sake of discussion.

There are currently efforts to adapt WIFI technology to build mesh networks, but WIFI was conceived as a short range technology and “last mile” typically means we may be talking distances between nodes of several hundred meters. This degrades signal throughput of WIFI, even with external antennas. G3 or G4 mobile phone technology could help, but here we talk about competing providers that are not about to share networks with each other.

In addition, there are fairly widespread concerns over the huge increase in electromagnetic pollution brought to our homes by both WIFI and mobile phone technologies, which are not going to go away, unless there is a change in technical specs that can assure the electrosensitive that they have a future that doesn’t involve hiding out in far away places or wearing protective clothing and installing special shielding in their homes.

There IS an interesting technology that does not involve pulsed microwaves as the transmission medium and that could – with some help – be made available to end users, who could then construct a tight weave of local connectivity that can tap into both ISPs and ACIs and their extensions and that is sufficiently fast and robust to be a candidate.

ISPs could perhaps be induced to adopt it as an alternative to building out their last mile connectivity alone, which turns out to be very expensive if it is to carry broadcast quality content. Users could be the ultimate custodians of that type of network. It would be necessary for end users and ISPs to form some kind of alliance, out of which the end users get free local connectivity (they supply the electricity and basic maintenance) and ISPs get a functioning last mile distribution and customers for their backbone services.

The vision is to take the light beams that travel through optic cables and to replace the cables by simple light-based transmission, preferably laser, between the end users. This would form a fault tolerant and fast (high data throughput) network from one rooftop to the next, which would make local connectivity free and fast. Not every end user would have to be connected to the backbone. The user-cloud could be linked by what we might call “super users” (those with need for high bandwidth or with need for exceptionally stable connection) such as large businesses, educational institutions, city hall, etc. to the optic cable backbones. Those connections that are anyway needed and already paid for would be quite sufficient to connect the user-cloud to the internet.

The technology will need some development, but it has been proven to work in concept. One implementation marries ultra wide band radio technology with a laser and a single optic fiber:

“Moshe Ran, Coordinator of the EU-funded project, UROOF (Photonic components for Ultra-wideband Radio Over Optical Fiber), has a vision. He wants to see streams of high-definition video and other high-bandwidth services flowing through homes, office buildings, and even ships and planes, through a happy marriage of optical and ultra-wideband radio technologies.

The UROOF EAT system starts with a central laser that generates an unmodulated optical signal and sends it through a single optical fibre to remote units. In its downlink mode, the central unit receives a UWB radio signal, modulates the optical carrier, and beams it to the remote units. In the uplink mode, a remote EAT modulates the optical signal and sends it back to the central station.

The EAT based Access Node 2 has the potential to carry far more information than Access Node 1, but there is a catch. “With EAT you can approach 60 GHz,” says Ran, “but it is expensive.”

The UROOF team is actively working to increase the bandwidth of Access Node 2 and reduce its cost.

Ran is encouraged by the progress UROOF has made. They have shown that UWB signals can be beamed over hundreds of metres using inexpensive optical technology, with greater bandwidth and longer distances in sight.

“As ultra-wideband technology penetrates the mass market – within the next two years – it will be possible to manufacture an access node that will meet the demand very nicely,” says Ran.

The UROOF project received funding from ICT strand of the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme for research.”


Another way of linking is to directly beam the laser from one user’s device to a receiving sensor of another user as described in the patent application of Ajang Bahar of Toronto, Canada.

“The current options for wireless communication have changed the way people work and the way in which networks can be deployed. However, there remains unresolved problems in the setup and configuration of wireless communication links. Both known cellular and ad hoc wireless networking protocols and systems are deficient in that the ability for users to communicate without a priori knowledge of MAC addresses (represented by phone numbers, IP addresses and the like) is limited or may be compromised in a hostile environment. In contrast, provided by aspects of the present invention are devices, systems and methods for establishing ad hoc wireless communication between users that do not necessarily have MAC addresses and the like for one another. In some embodiments, a first user visually selects a second user and points a coherent light beam at an electronic device employed by the second user. Data specific to the first user is modulated on the coherent light beam, which can then be demodulated when the coherent light beam is received by the electronic device of the second user.”


A similar patent by Doucet and Panak can be found here:

There is also a paper by Akella and others of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute titled Building Blocks for Mobile Free-Space-Optical Networks, which explores the issue. The authors have done some first experiments.

“Optical wireless, also known as free space optics (FSO), is an effective high bandwidth communication technology serving commercial point-to-point links in terrestrial last mile applications and in infrared indoor LANs. FSO has several attractive characteristics such as (i) dense spacial reuse, (ii) low power usage per transmitted bit, (iii) license-free band of operation, and (iv) relatively high bandwidth. Despite these features it has not been considered as a communication environment for general-purpose metropolitan area networks or multi-hop ad-hoc networks, which are currently based on radio frequency (RF) communication technologies…”


The US military has also analyzed Free Space Optics as a transmission technology and has produced and published a White Paper:

My point is that the technology of optical transmission has been explored and is well in hand. It is technically feasible for last mile applications. Since users can be connected to more than one peer, the network becomes resilient. Increasing proximity to a super-user, a node connected with the backbone, will make for increasing reliability of the network connection.

Now if telcos and ISPs could be induced to embrace that technology, a simple, cheap hardware implementation could be developed that could easily be provided to end users, in exchange for operation of their node. ISPs would have resolved the spiny problem of covering the last mile, while users would be linked in to the internet at negligible or no cost and would have a local p2p network that data can travel on without having to go through any provider. Even in a national context, data would only have to go short hops (such as from one city to another) saving backbone capacity.

Such a massive p2p infrastructure would not only resolve the spiny problem of bridging the last mile, it would make the whole Internet substructure very much more resilient.”

In the (admittedly rather likely) event that telcos and ISPs would be happy to continue their decline, holding on to their outdated model while refusing to push power outward to their client base, the technology should be developed as a an open source hardware project with maximum urgency.

Previous call to action

Michel Bauwens has pointed me to a previous call for action, posted on Indymedia a year ago. You can find it here:

Autonet – an autonomous internet – call for participation

Unfortunately this particular call does not seem to have found a lot of resonance. The links in the article come up empty. If anyone knows how to activate (or connect us with) those in the Indy community who would like to drive this forward, please comment.

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