What kind of broadband Internet access would be possible if there were no government regulation? Today every government in the world has laws or regulations on who can run cables in public rights-of-way but, in some places, these rules are not effective. This has produced some very interesting case studies on what markets do in the absence government granted monopolies.
Last fall, I wrote two blog posts about the situation in Bucharest where essentially anyone can string cables in public rights-of-way. The result are widespread fiber and Cat 5 cable networks and bundles of CATV + FTTB (100 Mbps FastEthernet) + telephony are routinely available for as little as 9 Euros (~US $12) per month. Here is another case:
Desi Cable Networks in Lahore
Recently, I had a very interesting email exchange with Tariq Mustafa in Lahore about informal broadband access arrangements in Southeast Asia. (Tariq blogs as Tee Emm on Pakistan NextGen Issues and is also active on Telecom Grid Pakistan). Tariq also has direct knowledge of local networks in Lahore and Karachi and indirect information about Dhaka (Bangladesh). With Tariq's permission, I'll quote extensively from his emails, but first a quick summary of the situation as I understand it.
Access to neighborhood rights-of-way is governed by local relationships rather than by official government license. As a result, there are extensive local broadband networks (fiber and Cat 5 cable) providing excellent local connectivity (typically up to 100 Mbps symmetric), including high speed access to local content caches. Actual connections to the Internet are still limited so, while one can download movies from a file server at 30 - 50 Mbps, connections to the real Internet tend to be limited to 512 Kbps each. On the other hand, the whole package costs roughly Rs 600 or about US $8, per month. And, while exact figures are not available, it appears the number of grey market subscribers far exceeds those officially counted by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority.
In short, where there is no government and no government empowered monopolist (in this case, the first 5-15 km), both fiber and Fast Ethernet are widely deployed, and prices are extremely low. Actual connections to the Internet have to go through licensed ISPs and need access to the country's limited International cables. These remain expensive.
Tariq's Explanation of Desi Cable Networks
Everything that follows is quoted directly from Tariq's emails to me:
DCN - Desi Cable Nets as I want to call them. (Desi is the word that means 'local' in our South Asian Languages. The word was necessary to differentiate these networks from the original hybrid fiber coaxial network that are generally called Cable Networks in the developed countries).
To answer your questions, here are some more facts. Feel free to get back to me if you have more questions. I consider myself a vocalist when it comes to these DCNs and the impact that these have created (in the absence of the actual formal industry rising up to the occasion for the digital needs of the masses). I talked about this at Sanog XI in Dhaka (Bangladesh) earlier this January <2008> and the title of the talk was 'Community Networks - Crowning the Robinhood'. This summaries what I mean.
1. DCN is an eco-system of operators, consumers and social realities.
2. A DCN eco-system is characterized by high desires for middle class community to get online, low affordability, lack of regulation, low concerns of digital communication security and poor infrastructure of electricity and underground cables.
3. A DCN successfully delivers (often partial) Internet services in the wake of the above obstacles to large parts of population.
4. In a DCN eco-system, there is one part that can be referred to as the 'junknet'. The junknet is an instance of anywhere from 50 to 150 houses connected to empirically <located> Ethernet switches mounted generally on top of utility poles and interconnected to each other over Cat5 cables. A junknet is characterized by lack of any intelligence. There are no AAA servers, no bandwidth managers, no routers etc. It is essentially a collection of Cat5 cables coming out of houses and connecting to Ethernet switches on the utility poles. These Ethernet switches are cascaded to allow the junknet to connect together from 50 to 150 houses typically.
5. A junknet operator essentially performs the following in this ecosystem:
- Maintenance of the Junknet cable system.
- Making cable connections for end users.
- Helping end users with the set up of the connection at the PC.
- Securing rights (mostly informal, driven by local influence) of taking the cable in the vicinity.
- Provisioning and upkeep of the Ethernet switches mounted atop the utility poles in the area.
- Securing UPS based power for the switches where possible by offering discounted or free DCN service to participating teens in the area.
- Fee collection from the end users and depositing to the aggregator. Bills or pre-paid balances are managed and are generated by another entity.
6. Junknets terminate at router points that are placed in the locality by another player within the DCN eco-system. Let us call them aggregators. To save costs and to remain at the lowest price points, the aggregator uses small Linux based PCs with up to 6 Ethernet interfaces running Zebra for routing. Aggregators are intelligent in that they have elements that do routing and silence the broadcast storms that are possible (and often quite common) in the individual Junknets they power.
7. Aggregator networks make extensive use of optical fiber, once again, running on utility poles. Again, to keep costs down, these operators do not use optical Ethernet switches as one would expect but employ low cost media converters to connect the router PCs together over great distances - generally 5 to 15 km.
8. These router PCs are aggregated on proper Cisco Ethernet switches (for the first time in the ecosystem).
9. Typical DCNs operate over 1 Gig of network capacity between the switches with recent news of the trunks being upgraded to 10 G on experimental basis. The DCNs in Pakistan run on a rich diet of fiber which gives them the ability to support hundreds of end points in densely populated areas.
10. A network wide DHCP hands out one set of IP addresses to any device that connects to this huge network of 10 to 15 thousand end points. However, these IPs are not routed and are of no direct use to the average end customer.
11. A home grown VPN client than connects a VPN concentrator at the DCN HQ to get a functional IP address which is either a real globally routed IP address or an IP address that is recognized by one of the many proxy servers in the DCN HQ and lets the user access the Internet.
12. Non-paying customers are denied access to the VPN box until the payment is received traversing the chain mentioned above (Junknet - Aggregator - HQ).
13. It is common for the end uses to download pirated movies and software from the file servers managed by the DCN HQs. Users expect these downloads to take place at around 4 to 5 MB per second and when this goes down below 2 MB per second, the users actually complain against the service to their operator.
14. As a DCN approaches higher number of users and buy bulk bandwidth (most that I know are running STM1 or multiple STM1s for transit capacity), the statistical multiplexing effects gets stronger and end users' experience gets better.
15. For Rs 600 ($8) per month, users of these DCN generally get a service upwards of 512 kbps in middle class localities. The DCNs often do not explicitly cap the throughput. At times, when the load is less, users get to enjoy multi-megabit Internet access. However, of late, with better traffic shaping techniques being cheaply available to the DCN operators, some permanent traffic policing is being witnessed. This is managed at the DCN HQ.
16. The cable systems running these DCNs - the fiber or cat5 cables atop utility poles - are not governed by regulations of either PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) or PTA (Pakistan Telecommunication Authority) as both bodies find the operations lying in the middle gray area. PTA deals with the formal, tax paying and well organized ISP and Telecommunications industry while PEMRA deals with the TV cable systems that, at the edge, depend on the coaxial cable running atop utility poles to reach their end users. The fiber that takes the DCNs from one locality to another locality (with the PC routers as bridges between them and the junknets) runs along with these TV channel cables.
And from a subsequent email answering some additional questions:
2. There is a tremendous potential for DCNs to peer, at least in the cities. The trump card here, again, is the near universal availability of fibers-on-the-poles which can allow DCN HQs to peer at multi gigabit speeds. However, the biggest challenge is not technological unfortunately. The biggest challenge is that the DCN top-guys are yesteryears street roamers and getting them to digest the idea of putting a dedicated switch (vs a PC based multi Ethernet port aggregator) is tough beyond expectations. Telling them why peering is important and the subsequent marvels this will bring in is like explaining a fine color shade to <someone> born blind. I've had personal experience in this respect.
3. Pakistan is paying through its nose for the Internet Transit it buys for its population. As a country, it is estimated that Pakistan subscribes to around 10 GB of Internet transit. For operators like my employer, STM1 costs in the vicinity of USD 23,000 per month and STM-4 transit capacities in the vicinity of USD 65,000 per month. In Pakistan, where broadband penetration is just 170,000 broadband connections (BB is defined as anything above 128 kbps), there is a huge potential <demand for> domestic bandwidth which is just not being taken care of. The entire country is depending on what I insist to call 'imported Internet' and there is no way this model can scale if we are to touch a few million broadband users by the next 18 months.
4. Asymmetry sometimes comes into play because some DSN have HFC cablenet and/or DSL connection bundles as their upstreams or backups. When these are in play, the upstream performances get bad.