Is Symmetry Inevitable?

by Doc Searls

I'm writing this over a cable connection that gives me 3Mbps on the downstream side and 300Kbps on the upstream side. It's far better than the 144Kbps symmetrical DSL I had at my old place. The cable company (Cox High Speed Internet) doesn't even care if you hook up a WiFi 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.

The connection's downstream speed is twice what I had over an office T1 line last year. But I miss the upstream advantages of that T1 connection, including the upstream speed, the eight IP addresses and the absence of restrictions on how I used them. It was well worth the $100/month fee, which was very cheap as T1 connections go.

Now that I'm back working out of my house, I'm faced with the choice between cheap 3Mbps/300Kbps asymmetrical cable for $35 a month and “business services” that begin at $99/month. The business class offers 768/256Kbps service and five IP addresses. If I want the equivalent of my old T1 service, I'll need to spend $309 per month, and I still only get 512Kbps on the upstream side.

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. When we first moved to Santa Barbara, California (where I live now and where 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, the speed was flat-out astonishing. I'd download a movie trailer, and it would arrive in a few moments. I was getting 7Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream. It was as if the whole Internet was one big local hard drive.

When we moved to our current house, the speed went down, but not by much. Then, after Cox converted over to its own backbone services, speeds stabilized at 3Mbps/300Kbps. There is no way I'm going to be able to serve anything at better than a fraction of T1 speed out of my house, no matter what I pay.

Which is why I've been paying the big bucks to Xo Communications to host my personal domain, Mostly it's a place where I archive a lot of files. Some are speeches and presentations that run up to 20MB and more. At the moment I'm paying $7.50/month for every 10MB over 100MB that Xo hosts, and keeping costs down by 404-ing the old stuff. I need bigger, cheaper storage.

I've found a hosting service with lower prices, 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 can't I serve files at high speeds out of my home? Wasn't the Net designed to be symmetrical in the first place?

Recently a friend told me that “the phone and cable guys are never going to get what WiFi is'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. The question is, how long will it take? I'm 55, and I want it to happen in my lifetime. Will it?

In January 2002, I wrote about KPIG (, the pioneering radio station that has been webcasting for seven years. They've been doing it all on Linux and other free and open-source software. As I write this in mid-July, KPIG ceased webcasting, because it can't afford the insane royalty rates imposed by the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel. CARP 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 WiFi, which has been spreading like a weed? To my knowledge, not a single major bandwidth provider has stepped forward to embrace the WiFi movement, in spite of its obvious popularity. Instead, several recently have issued warnings to customers who spread bandwidth wirelessly around their neighborhoods.

It's hard for the big bandwidth providers even to 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.

But more and more consumers have also become producers—not only of goods for sale, but of opinions and influence. 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 we're going to want to put them on the Web to share with our families, coworkers and customers. Unless the prices come way down, way fast, remote servers will remain too expensive. And it'll make much more sense simply to serve our stuff off a household hard drive. When that happens, there's going to be a barnstorm business in Cobalt Qubes 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.

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