The High Road and the Low Road to Fibre

Telco 2.0 ally Brough Turner points everyone to an interesting story from Lahore in Pakistan, where not only can you get fibre to the home, but it's cheap as well. It's well worth reading.

Essentially, the government and the incumbent telco don't know or can't enforce their control of the right-of-way, which means that they have effective Layer Zero openness. Anybody can, in practice, string cable from the existing power and telephony poles; and it turns out that quite a lot do. Using basic IT gear, they place cheap Ethernet switches on the poles and run Cat5 or 6 cable into their customers' homes, then get an aggregator to link the whole thing to a PC running an open source router implementation and a fibre-optic cable to their HQ.

The Low Road: Rawalpindi The Low Road in Rawalpindi. (Flickr user temp 13rec.)

Usually, the first router in a sense that Peter Lothberg (pdf) would recognise is at this stage. This gives you 100Mbits/s as far as the HQ; getting out to the Internet is more difficult, because capacity is scarce and expensive and the state telco controls interconnection. So most of them roll their own CDN - a file server stuffed with content which their customers can download at line speed, rather than hammering the backbone link.

It's impressive stuff. It's also a fine example of the distinction WELL founder and scenario-planning expert Stewart Brand drew in his book How Buildings Learn between High Road and Low Road architecture. You can see Brand talking about the book here. High Road buildings are like Chatsworth or a cathedral; they last because they are built massively strong, tailored to very specific uses with great care, and protected by the institutions that build them. Low Road buildings are like Brand's office, a converted shipping container - cheap, generic, adaptable, liberated by indifference. If they survive, it's because they can be altered to cope with change.

The high road; Schönbrunn Palace, still beautiful 91 years after the end of its purpose The high road; Schönbrunn is still beautiful although it's been completely useless for the last 91 years. (Flickr user tillysan.)

Need to cable the place for a trading floor or a call centre or a developer team or a data centre? Cut a hole in the wall. Need more space? Build a mezzanine floor out of old pallets. Who will say anything? The planning committee? You're not telling. Need fibre-to-the-home? Just nail the damn fibre to the lamp posts, and..hey, isn't there an old PC in the corner. Just the thing for running a linux-based software router. Need voice? Set up Asterisk on Abdul's old laptop.

The low road - building an instant house from containers in New Zealand The low road - an instant house made from containers in New Zealand. (Flickr user rodrigoejuliana)

It's an attractive vision; if you're on the Right, it's the triumph of individual enterprise, if you're on the Left it's an example of the poor organising to defeat their oppression, if you're an anarchist it's an example of mutual aid and community, and the sheer hacker glee of hanging your own damn fibre on the bleedin' lampposts is irresistible unless you have a heart of stone.

So, let's hang the last regulator with the copper wires of the last telco. FIBRE JIHAD!

Of course, it doesn't quite work like that. Low Road buildings buy their adaptability at the cost of fragility and their easy repair and low cost at the cost of having no insulation and less soundproofing; Low Road fibre networks issue everyone with IP addresses out of someone else's netblock (they're free but not cheap) and have their customers VPN into a proxy server at headquarters that does have a real, globally routed IP.

Now that's low. But what happens when the horizontal rain starts? Now that's really low, but if there's wind as well as rain...(Flickr user ang morh.)

Remember the time young Wasim got his kite caught in the wires? Remember the time young Shoaib bowled a bouncer that hit young Inzaman in the occiput, glanced off, and went straight into the Quagga box? More seriously, just imagine when they start doing BGP routing. Fun...and games.

How is he?! Howisheee? (Flickr user mjabbasi.)

And, of course, if everyone can string cable all over the place, everyone will, and that's a lot of cable. Further, if everyone can remove cable, some of them will; and this is a country where AK-47 ownership is common. Where there's a commons there's a potential tragedy of the commons.

Low Road entropy, Quetta Low Road entropy in Quetta. (Flickr user changezi.)

Hence the need for the heavy engineering and interlocking committees of the High Road. What is the High Road to fibre? Surely it's STOKAB, SingTel, CityLink, Reggefiber, et al - everything is set down in contracts and standard specifications, the government is frequently involved, cable is laid in sealed ducts built for the ages in reinforced concrete and steel. The capital requirements are huge and everything must be right first time, before the concrete sets. But if you get it right, it's there for 150 years at least.

Mediocrity steals. Class steals from Doc Searls The high road; Level(3) infrastructure. (Flickr user dsearls. Haven't we seen that monicker somewhere?)

If you get it right; that presupposes you actually made a start. This is the risk of going High Road - you don't get the project started, or you start it and end up with a MagLev track in the middle of nowhere.

Completely useless - but too strong to knock down The Aerotrain test track in France. Completely useless, but far too strong to knock down. (Flickr user effelbee.)

So, we have two contrasting traditions, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, requirements, and affordances, both of equal validity. If I take the High Road and you take the Low, we'll both end up in Scotland. You'll probably be there first, but the road may wash away in the next storm. But, as Brand concluded, there is no middle way - the alternative is No Road. You must choose.

For example, if you bury services built to a Low Road standard in a massive High Road wall, you're going to have serious trouble when a pipe leaks and the only way to get at it involves a pneumatic drill and extreme prejudice. If you build a cheap, adaptable structure of timber, you need to either make sure it's always in use, or else accept that it will catch fire or fall down a few months after you stop maintaining it.

Temporary. Everything Low Road is temporary. (Flickr user purplewon2000.)

At the end of my street is a street cabinet used by a DOCSIS operator. The operator is a big publicly quoted company. The cable is buried in their trench, in the Queen's highway. I'm not allowed to touch it; I'm not allowed to repair it; I'm even discouraged from reporting problems with it. Very High Road. But the cabinet is flimsy, and vandals break into it looking for copper - they don't know about co-ax cable, and the BT cabinet next door is of heavy forged steel, with a great lock recessed into the steel for protection, so they break into the other one. And the big company doesn't care enough to secure it, so it's permanently exposed to the weather and they have no-notice multi-day outages. High, Low, or No Road?

Note the last maintenance visit was January, 2004 and this photo was taken in May, 2006. (Flickr user skuds.)

Probably, over time, the greynets of Pakistan will get tired of BGP routing leaks (pdf) and digging cricket balls out of their equipment. They will subscribe to NANOG, design a proper addressing scheme, set up a RADIUS server, they may well discover the joys of Internet exchanges and all interconnect with each other. They will eventually decide to put the fibre in a conduit, or even dig a trench. And at this point they may even agree to share the conduit, trench, or the fibre itself.

Stewart Brand concluded that although there was no synthesis between the High Road and the Low Road, there were common factors that held whether you were building for the High Road or the Low. Essentially, a building has to last, it mustn't leak, and it must learn.

St.Pancras Station is transformed, by its massive structure. (Flickr user Kevin R. Boyd.)

So its structure should be strong and sufficiently overscaled to handle future expansion, because people always add to successful buildings, and it must be made of materials that last. Its roof should be pitched not flat, preferably built-up tile, slate, or metal. St Pancras Station, above, could be transformed for the new Eurostar terminal not because of the beautiful roof of the Barlow trainshed but because of the strong iron columns in the foreground, which were there to create a space for handling trainloads of beer barrels. And it should be of a design that makes it easy to alter, maintain, subdivide, and if necessary, demolish. (The lesson some buildings have to learn is that they shouldn't exist.) The technical solution to make this possible is separation of the structure from the services, the skin, and the space plan.

You can't dodge the infrastructure You can't dodge the infrastructure - the original columns of St Pancras. (Flickr user icefuzion.)

So, fibre deployers should:
  1. build big and solid
  2. leave space for expansion
  3. provide openness at every level
  4. eliminate coercion from the architecture
  5. always separate functions

This one is here because it's beautiful This one is here because it's beautiful. (Flickr user RahimR.)