Linux For Suits

October 2002

Is symmetry inevitable?

Doc wonders if the symmetrical Net facing an upstream battle.

I'm writing this from the far end of a cable connection that gives me 3Mb on the downstream side and 300Kb on the upstream side. It's pretty good as cable goes, and far better than the 144Kb symmetrical DSL I had at my old place. The service is straight DHCP: no ID required. The cable company (Cox High Speed Internet) doesn't even care if you hook up a router, a hub, and a wi-fi base station. They also don't require that you buy their cable TV service (which we don't). Given the hell that other cable and DSL companies put their customers through, I really appreciate the company's relative cluefullness.

I also appreciate the connection's downstream speed, which is 2x what I got over the T1 at the interim office I rented last year from a local ISP. But I miss the unencumbered upstream advantages of that T1 connection, including the speed of the connection, the eight fixed IP addresses, and the absence of restrictions on how I used them (port 80 is blocked on home cable modems). It was well worth the $100/month fee, which was very cheap as T1 connections go.

But now that I'm back working out of my house, I'm faced with the choice between cheap 3Mb/300Kb asymmetrical cable (what I have now) for $35 a month, and "business services" that begin at $99/month for an 768/256Kb asymmetrical service that includes including five assigned IP addresses and a Tier 1 service contract (which means I get somebody on the phone who can tell customers something more than how to restart their modems and check the settings on their Windows PCs). If I want the equivalent of my old T1 service, I'll need to spend $309 per month, and I still only get 512Kb on the upstream side. In fact, the top speed Cox offers is 3.2Mb/512Kb, for $499/month.

And get this: the service is delivered over the same kind of cable modem I'm using now. According to the service guys who came last week to fix a minor problem, the speed on both the upstream and downstream sides is set by the central office. They control the modem, even though I own the thing.

The same guys told me something else that blew my mind: In the old days, before Excite@Home failed, and Cox was still Cox@Home (and using the @Home backbone service), the company didn't limit throughput in either direction. This claim is consistent with my experience. When we first moved to Santa Barbara (where I live now and all this has been happening) in early 2001, we rented an apartment near the beach. When the cable guy came and installed the cable modem (and recommended that we get a router, hub and wi-fi station -- no kidding), the speed was flat-out astonishing. I'd download something huge, like a movie trailer, and it would arrive in a few moments. It was as if the whole Internet was one big local hard drive. When I tested the speed with DSL Reports' service <>, I was getting 7Mb downstream and 3Mb upstream. At its worst the speed would decline to 3Mb down and 500Kb up.

When we moved to our current house, which is out in the country a little ways, the speed went down, but not by much. Then, after Cox converted over to its own backbone services, speeds seem to have been stabilized at 3Mb/300Kb. The service guys confirmed that. "In fact, you're only supposed to be getting about 250Kb going upstream," they said.

So there is no way I'm going to be able to serve anything at better than a fraction of a T1 speed out of my house, no matter what I pay.

Which is why I've been paying the big bucks to Xo Communications, where I've maintained my personal domain,, for about five years. Mostly it's a place where I archive a lot of files. Some are speeches and presentations that consist of .jpg "slides" in HTML galleries of 30 pages or more. Some are galleries of pictures from Geek Cruises and other Linux Journal events. These run up to 20 MB and more. Some are family photo albums I only expose to a few people, but they take up a lot of space too. And all these files will frustrate more than a few downstream visitors if they aren't served at a multi-megabyte speed. At the moment I'm paying $7.50/month for every 10MB over 100MB that Xo hosts. Right now I'm at 200MB, which I maintain by dumping off (and yes, 404-ing) older presentations and photo galleries. But since I'm shooting more digital photos than ever, and making more presentations than ever, I need bigger, cheaper storage.

This means the only reasonable choice is to move to a hosting service that will charge me an affordable price for the storage or the rack space. I've found one, but it's still a lot more than I'd pay for storage in my own house.

Which brings me to the big questions here: Why shouldn't I be able to serve files at high speed out of my home? And, Wasn't the Net was designed to be symmetrical in the first place?

Recently a friend told me "the phone and cable guys are never going to get what wi-fi is about... it's going to spread like the Net: in spite of them, not because of them." I agree, because I believe foundational intentions have permanent influence over everything that follows. If the Net's founding architects wanted it to be symmetrical, that's what it will be. Someday.

The question is, How long it will take? I'm 55, and I want it to happen in my lifetime. Will it? I gotta wonder.

In January I wrote about KPIG <>, the pioneering radio station that has been webcasting for seven years, and has lately been doing it all on Linux and other free and open source software. Three days ago as I write this (in mid-July) KPIG ceased webcasting because it can't afford the insane royalty rates imposed by the copyright office. In June the Librarian of Congress agreed with a Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel that recommended fees that effectively restricted webcasting to broadcast conglomerates -- none of which are interested. So Internet radio has effectively been outlawed, and the RIAA is as happy as a maggot on a corpse. It's a huge victory for the forces of asymmetry. And it won't be the last one.

How long before the broadband distributors start trying to stomp out wi-fi, which has been spreading like a weed across the netscape (no pun intended -- I think it's a legitimate word and not just a failed brand). To my knowledge, not a single major bandwidth provider has stepped forward to embrace the wi-fi movement, in spite of its obvious popularity. Instead several have recently issued warnings to customers who spread bandwidth wirelessly around their neighborhoods.

One friend recently told me, "The big bandwidth providers will never understand wi-fi. It will spread entirely in spite of them, not because of them. Just like the Net."

Indeed, it's very hard for the big bandwidth providers to even begin conceiving the Net as anything other than an asymmetrical medium for the distribution of "content," most of which is owned by somebody in the entertainment business. And it's also hard to conceive of bandwidth ownership passing to more enlightened hands.

In March, 1995, about the same time as KPIG started webcasting, John Perry Barlow wrote a classic essay called "Death From Above". <> It begins,

He goes on to quote an email from Gordon Bell, who urged Barlow and others to put their "bodies in front of the backhoes that are installing asymmetric networks that simply mimic cable TV". Bell added,

Barlow went on to lament the one-way expectations that were being built into the "information superhighway" at that time, and then concluded by handicapping his long-term bet:

It's seven years later, and the asymmetrical legacy seems to be winning over the symmetrical one.

Yet I'm still inclined to bet the same way as Barlow, simply because the asymmetries of power are declining across the board. More and more consumers are also become producers -- not only of goods for sale, but of opinions and influence. We still need our Cypherpunks, but we also need the rest of us. And sooner or later we're going to come through, thanks to our own personal technologies.

We have two secret weapons -- so secret most of us don't even know we have them. One is the digital camcorder. The other is the digital camera. We're going to be making more and more movies and slide shows, and wanting to put them on the Web to share with our families, co-workers and customers. Unless the prices come way down, way fast, remote servers will remain too expensive. And it'll make too much sense just to serve our stuff off a household hard drive. When that happens, there's a barnstorm business in Cobalt Cubes and other breeds of Linux boxes.

When that happens, symmetry will be restored. Maybe not tomorrow, but probably in my lifetime. I hope.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.