Lampposts vs the Internet
The Internet is about taking advantage of opportunity. Instead of having to find a special place for sensors, such as lampposts, we can take advanate of all the opportunity offered by the distributed nature of the Internet.25-Aug-2007

In reading about researchers who plan to spend three years deploying 100 sensors on lampposts throughout Cambridge, Mass., I’m reminded of the story of the man looking for his lost key. A stranger offers to help and asks the man where he dropped the key. The man answers, “Over there, but I am looking here because this is where the light is.”

For this research team, the lampposts provide power for its devices and a place to mount the sensors. Team members can place them around the city and use their 802.11 radios to form a mesh, provided the sensors are sufficiently close together.

This sounds wonderful. It’s almost as if the researchers understood the Internet and were taking advantage of it for a noble cause. But in fact they are missing the point. Perhaps the researchers have reasons for their approach in this particular situation, but the idea of building a sensor network is not new. It’s just another infrastructure in cities where each service typically has its own infrastructure and often more than one, as we’ve seen with the broadband service- delivery paths.

The end-to-end principle means that Internet-based solutions can’t depend on the features of the data path. Instead of building a special infrastructure for this mesh, why not take advantage of the abundant Internet connectivity already available? Sensors only need to send a few bits of information. A student sharing an Internet connection wouldn’t be able to detect the additional traffic.

Why not take advantage of the many students in Cambridge who would be glad to contribute to a good cause? Not only can they provide connectivity for the sensors, they can mount the sensors outside their windows.

Building your own mesh is attractive, and you can show your cleverness. It’s also a great way to procrastinate rather than doing the actual research using the data from the sensors. Perhaps the researchers fear the loss of control, but that’s an illusion. They need to take endto- end responsibility whether they have their own mesh or use the abundant connectivity already available. Sensors on polls are not immune from hacking, while students who volunteer to host a sensor are likely to take responsibility for protecting it.

I presume the failure to take advantage of available connectivity is a result of ignorance, but for some having a larger budget and their own network contributes to ego and career inflation. For the current privileged service providers (aka broadband carriers), the reasons are far less honorable. It gives them the ability to thwart competition as if they were too special to be subject to antitrust enforcement.

Cities and other communities have a strong interest in taking advantage of a common infrastructure. When I read about cities concerned about the cost of WiFi, I realize they don’t understand the Internet; they see the expense of building yet another special infrastructure and not the opportunity to take advantage of connectivity to reduce their costs.

And, as I keep trying to explain, that includes sharing a common broadband backbone.

We can also take advantage of existing access points by using software that protects the vulnerable home networks by providing two faces. One is for use within the home and shares the broadband connection with the community. This is a win-win scenario. It increases the security of the network within the home and contributes to the commons. For safety, a VPN tunnel would assure passersby that their traffic is safe without having to trust those who share.

You won’t walk around with laptops, but the sensors give us a hint of what we can do when we can take advantage of connectivity without having to justify the expense of a special infrastructure. What would happen if a few million people mounted simple weather sensors outside their homes? This is the kind of project people would want to contribute to because they can understand the benefit. If it were done as a traditional government project, it would be doomed by the expense alone, but, more subtly, such an attempt to do us good may likely discourage voluntary participation.

The Internet has given us abundance by compositing our individual contributions. Yet we are unable to see this abundance. Even worse, we have an entire incumbent telecom industry that is threatened by abundance and seeks refuge in IMS and the fantasy that it can force the world to converge around its billing engine.

Once again we’re reminded that the Internet is not about telecom; it is about opportunity and community.