Now that net neutrality has been repealed, many people are faced with the stark reality that most ISPs have a monopoly in their market. This seems impossible to get around. Aside from using your phone for everything, what other options are there? Well, you could build your own. And it’s easier than you might think.
- Let’s start with how the internet works: Your ISP doesn’t own the internet. In fact, your ISP doesn’t even own a piece of the internet. What your ISP “owns” is the “last mile”, the cables that connect your house to the internet. The ISP accesses the internet via Network Service Providers, or NSPs, and they in turn access the internet via three Network Access Points (NAPs) or Metropolitan Area Exchanges (MAEs). In theory, at least, you could walk into an NSP and just negotiate your internet service with them.
- The problem, for a long time, was connecting NSPs and private residences: Keep in mind that most of America’s broadband infrastructure was built in the 1980s, when the internet was still the ARPANet and mostly used by the military and academics. It is, in some ways, a kludge; cable was mostly strung by the time the internet caught on, so cable, whether it was copper wires from a telephone or coaxial cable from a cable company, was the most convenient way to close that “last mile.”
- But that’s not the case any longer: The most common method for closing that last mile is to use point-to-point gigabit radio (think your wireless router, but at industrial strength), which is surprisingly cheap. And if this looks familiar, it should; your cell phone company already uses this to “backhaul” (communications industry jargon for shoring up) its networks. There are already companies using this method to provide shockingly fast internet service. From there, most people doing this build a mesh network, where all the modems connected to a radio signal share traffic.
- In fact, it’s increasingly believed that “mesh networks” are the way to go for better, more stable internet: Your current internet is like a tree: the ISP is the trunk and the various apartments and homes the cable stops at are the branches. In mesh networks, the traffic is distributed among everybody with a connection, so if one node goes out, another immediately takes its place. It’s already being used to get around repressive regimes and to wire up areas of cities where ISPs refuse to offer service. It’s the same principle as setups like Eero or Google WiFi, except expanded outside your house.
- These are just the broad strokes, of course: Leaving aside that all this infrastructure needs to be paid for and maintained, there’s also the matter of permits, local regulations, and who’ll collect the money and make sure the bills get paid needs to be settled. But for many communities, and anyone who wants to ensure net neutrality, it’s increasingly a viable option. And, hey, if you hate your internet service provider, you get to stick it to them as a bonus.