COMMONS Project Explores Alternative for Underserved Communities
The United States faces a worsening broadband crisis.
Over the past half-decade, the United States has fallen behind a growing list of industrialized nations in broadband penetration rates, delivery speeds and price per megabit.
Rural and poor communities are doubly discriminated against, often receiving little or no broadband access and paying higher service rates when they do have access. In addition to other benefits, the Cooperative Measurement and Modeling of Open Networked Systems (COMMONS) project offers one approach to alleviate the problem.
In December 2006, the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA) held the North American Strategy Workshop to discuss and launch innovative collaboration among researchers and interested broadband networks from across the continent.
This initiative was developed to solve three acute and growing problems facing the Internet: a self-reported financial crisis in the Internet service provision industry that poses a severe threat to broadband growth and American competitiveness; a data acquisition crisis that has stunted the field of network science; and a critical dilemma within emerging community, municipal, regional and state networks, who need affordable broadband connectivity but face severely limited service level, usage and provider options.
The COMMONS project is partnering with national backbone providers to interconnect participating community, municipal, regional and state networks to one another, and to the global Internet. COMMONS peering - the voluntary interconnection of administratively separate Internet networks for the purpose of exchanging traffic between the users of each network - is available to city, county, state and federal government entities; academic institutions; community Internet initiatives (e.g., community wireless networks); and commercial entities based on three conditions.
These three conditions are, first, that networks will make select operational data available to COMMONS researchers under appropriate legal data-sharing and privacy safeguards. Second, the attached networks must agree to develop and abide by COMMONS policies, which will be based on the research results of empirical data analyses of network usage. Third, participating networks must abide by the acceptable use policies (AUP) set by the COMMONS Project Coordination Committee.
The COMMONS project merges representatives from industry, community and municipal networks; regional and state networks; and Internet researchers, community organizers and developers building next-generation data communications technologies.
The initial Strategy Workshop participants also included heads of research, infrastructure, media and policy organizations, and telecommunications lawyers. The diversity of workshop participants helped ensure that major project stakeholders were represented in the proceedings and could provide insights into the potential pitfalls and opportunities the COMMONS Project might face in coming years.
The COMMONS Strategy Workshop report is available at the Web site.
Laying the Groundwork
Charter members of the COMMONS project forged a consensus mission statement for the initiative. This statement of purpose laid the groundwork for future organizing efforts and provides a glimpse of how COMMONS differs from other initiatives to bring affordable broadband to underserved communities.
COMMONS is a community of interest comprising local networks, broadly defined, that seek to utilize an AUP-neutral communications infrastructure; mitigate geographic disparities in the cost of Internet access and wide-area network connectivity; enable competitive environment in the connectivity market; benefit from economies of scale; and realize a vision for ownership in an open, universal and scalable backbone infrastructure.
COMMONS is also a community of network operators who recognize that the future usefulness and security of the Internet depend on the availability of empirical network data; support the availability of that empirical data to the academic research community; and insist that the data collected and utilized be handled in a manner respectful of personal privacy.
In addition, the project is a community of people who seek to exchange ideas on, and devote resources to, a wide variety of common interests to further the objectives stated above, including approaches to social problems that make the most of innovative technology and business strategies; political, legal and regulatory strategies; and community networking.
While the benefits to participating communities are fairly obvious, the active collaboration of the network research community is an innovative element of the project. The motivation behind scientists' involvement in broadband service provision is worth looking into because it provides valuable insights into often-ignored shortcomings in our understanding of the Internet itself.
Analyzing in the Dark
When the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET) backbone was privatized in 1995, the network science community lost access to the only set of publicly available statistics on a national Internet backbone network. This transition, perhaps inadvertently, eliminated an opportunity to conduct analyses on a widely used national backbone.
Today, far from having an analytic handle on the Internet, network researchers often lack the ability to measure traffic at the granularity necessary to make increasingly critical infrastructure improvements. Legislators operate under an enforced ignorance of potential security problems when the scientific community can't identify potential congestion points on the Internet, and labor under an empirical cluelessness about how the Internet can be improved.
Access to the network traffic data that the COMMONS project would collect would let researchers begin solving problems of cyber-security, spam overload, privacy invasion and identity theft, digital rights management and piracy, network congestion, pricing discrimination, illegal pornography, and many other issues. Without this data, network scientists, regulators and decision-makers are left fumbling in the dark as they attempt to address these seemingly intractable and growing problems.
Over the past decade, while the Internet's core continued to expand, scientific measurement and modeling of its systemic characteristics has largely stalled. The proliferation of multimedia content, and new services and applications, makes the acquisition of data far more difficult and costly than in previous years. Much like a scanning electron microscope is a critical tool for modern physics laboratories, high-powered (and concomitantly expensive) measurement tools are needed by Internet researchers to keep pace with the Internet's increasing complexity.
A growing number of policy analysts believe we can't build a national broadband policy that brings America into the digital future without a solid understanding of what's happening on our current networks. Throughout the decades that the U.S. government was a steward of the Internet, the only statistics collected regularly were those required by government contract. Since the Internet's privatization, we've embraced a policy that has sacrificed this data access. It's clear to network scientists, however, that this privatization created disastrous outcomes for network science and basic research.
Why COMMONS Works
Due to regulatory, political and market constraints of incumbent local exchange carriers and other broadband providers, Internet researchers have been unable to study mission-critical aspects of the Internet, or the state of its current robustness, capacity, usage and problem areas.
This means that potential solutions to these issues remain more conjecture than empirically backed analysis. Meanwhile, telecommunications regulators and policymakers have increasingly called for methodologically sound study of Internet usage, analysis of potential failure points and improvements to this vital infrastructure.
By offloading the responsibility for supporting Internet service delivery to so-called "unprofitable areas" from commercial providers, the COMMONS initiative will alleviate economic pressures on providers and provide much-needed competition. COMMONS also offers an unprecedented opportunity to establish standards of scientific integrity in the field of Internet research by providing rigorous empirical data against which theories, models and simulations can be validated.
Also, because the COMMONS test bed supports analysis of actual Internet traffic, it informs debates on increasingly important technical, economic, policy, privacy and social issues related to the Internet. The COMMONS project not only allows struggling community networks to cost-share a financially daunting component of their connectivity, but it also provides a forum for the cooperating networks and research community to share lessons learned with one another.
We're also at a unique inflection point in Internet history - a time when the idea that wireless infrastructure is "too inexpensive not to deploy" is starting to gain traction in public debates. In the last several years, the growth of wireless access has been astounding.
According to the MuniWireless.com 2006 State of the Market Report, the municipal wireless market alone has grown from $47.5 million in 2004 to $235.5 million in 2006. The market is predicted to well exceed $1 billion before the end of the decade, with the number of networks almost doubling each year.
When mapping these networks geographically, one can see that the COMMONS project is tapping into a national (and global) phenomenon with critical mass to support an incredible research endeavor.
Though wireless broadband numbers may look promising, the United States is falling dangerously behind in Internet infrastructure penetration, although even the extent to which we are falling behind has been obscured by faulty and opaque measurement and analysis methodologies.
In his seminal analysis and report on the state of U.S. broadband - Broadband Reality Check II - Free Press Research Director Derek Turner states that policymakers must require the FCC to improve its data collection on broadband markets. "Policymakers cannot adequately assess the problems in the broadband market, nor identify the most appropriate solutions, if the FCC provides poor information," Turner wrote. "The starting point should be a more precise measure of which geographic areas have service (using a smaller unit than the ZIP code). Beyond that, carriers should be required to report the percentages of households where broadband service is available in every service area, the percentage of households that subscribe, and the average cost per megabit of throughput. This evidentiary record will allow an accurate analysis of the problems we face and foster solutions that will achieve results."
COMMONS begins to address seven key areas identified by workshop participants as critical to the initiative: infrastructure issues, regulatory harmonization and reform, outreach and education, research and technological development, business model innovation, expansion of broadband services, and vision for the future.
For participating networks, the incentive to join COMMONS is similar to that of participants of Internet2, NLR, Quilt and the 33-plus state networks trying to execute similar agendas on a smaller scale: collective buying power, ongoing access to extensive research data, affordable fiber infrastructure, and transparent and accountable collaboration.
Cisco, CAIDA and (inter)national backbone providers have joined together with community, local, municipal, regional and state networks to support a large-scale incentive-based experiment in end-to-end network workload, performance, economic and behavioral measurement on an unprecedented national, intersegmented, interprovider scale.
Attached networks would agree to collaborate with network researchers by, for example, allowing researchers access to historical and current operational data, where necessary in an appropriate form made anonymous to protect users; agreeing to permit and/or participate in occasional openly reviewed experiments required to test new technologies; making customized end-user polling tools available to community network users who participate in project-related behavioral research; and adhering to responsible general administrative guidelines as set by the policy board to ensure project-funded resources are used securely and appropriately - for example, ingress �????�???�??�?¯�????�???�??�?¬?ltering to prevent spoofing, sufficient logging to support DOS traceback, 24/7 accessible networking support contact, network neutrality requirements.
When the companies who own the infrastructure under study are declaring bankruptcy, measurements are scarce. And when the companies who own the infrastructure are competing against each other, existing measurements are often considered extremely sensitive or completely proprietary. And yet, changing technologies, commercial strategies and regulatory policies have brought dramatic restructuring of Internet service delivery at the local, regional, national and global levels. Accompanying these changes are a variety of strong but conflicting (and generally unverified) assertions concerning the relative feasibility, necessity and superiority of different possible outcomes of this restructuring.
These assertions pose a problem for both researchers and policymakers. Given the increasingly critical role of information and communications technologies for national productivity, economic competitiveness, and even security, the costs of error could be grievous. Yet decision-makers are often forced to operate in an information vacuum - having access only to the information that the companies who would be affected by policy and regulatory changes are willing to share.
Both U.S. telecommunications companies and user advocates are unhappy with current communications policy. Prices for services are higher than many other industrialized nations, and broadband penetration is lower. Telecommunications companies have increasing trouble attracting investment and claim their broadband services need exemption from common carrier regulation in order to thrive.
Solutions tend to focus on industry-centric approaches to policy reform - for example, how much price-control leverage the government should have over telecommunications carriers, how much freedom should telecommunications carriers have to price-discriminate, how much subsidization of telecommunications companies is necessary, which entities should be forced to pay for universal service for rural areas, among many other questions.
The problem is that the dearth of Internet research makes it impossible to come up with reliable empirical answers to many of the questions regulators and politicians need answers to. Thus, national telecommunications policy is forced to advance blindly at a time where the United States is losing its competitive (broadband) edge. The COMMONS project provides a collaborative environment for policymakers to help shape the research questions under study and offers a vital resource for regulators seeking to make decisions based on empirical scientific research.
The COMMONS project offers an innovative experimental test bed that also provides affordable broadband to participating networks. Through collaborative peering and rigorous data collection and analysis, the COMMONS project facilitates both basic research and innovative improvements to the Internet. COMMONS presents an unprecedented opportunity for establishing standards for scientific integrity for in vivo Internet research using rigorous empirical data to validate theories, models and simulations.
The potential outcome of this project promises researchers a clearer picture of the nature and characteristics of the current Internet than ever before possible while informing discussions of future architectures and related design issues. The COMMONS project also provides an opportunity for opening up the "economics, ownership and trust layers" of inter-networking in much the same way the transport, network and application layers of the Internet are open to innovation.
At this critical juncture in telecommunications history, COMMONS provides a much-needed resource to help us chart the future of communications.
Sascha Meinrath is a regular contributor to Government Technology's Digital Communities and a co-editor of MuniWireless.com. Sascha serves as vice president of CTCnet, a U.S.-based network of more than 1,000 organizations united in their commitment to improve the educational, economic, cultural and political life of their communities through technology, and also founded The Ethos Group, a telecommunications consulting firm focusing on maximizing the community benefits of broadband technologies. Sascha blogs regularly at SaschaMeinrath.com.