Fiber optics and the Internet jangle governments nerves

Nov 1st, 1996

Fiber optics and the Internet jangle governments` nerves

From the United States to China, Russia, Germany and Mexico, telecommunications over the Internet worries those in power

StePHen n. brown, mev inc.

If you have ever wondered about the practical effects of a marriage between the Internet and a nationwide door-to-door fiber-optic network, consider the following e-mail message sent from Moscow to the West during the Communist party hard-liners` 1991 attempt to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union`s last Premier: "Thank Heavens these cretins (KGB) don`t consider us mass media! Please stop flooding the only narrow channel with bogus messages and silly questions. Note that it is neither a toy nor a means to reach your relatives or friends. We need the bandwidth to help organize the resistance."

As proponents of fiber-optic networks know, Moscow`s neorevolutionaries would have had no worries about bandwidth had they been using fiber. Perhaps a fledgling entrepreneur turning his back on the sale of armaments and embracing communications technology would see an opportunity beckoning and offer a sales pitch: "The next time you need bandwidth to organize the resistance, use fiber optics. Maintain visual contact with your freedom fighters, talk tactics with them, and speak to your relatives at the same time. You won`t be sorry you chose fiber!"

The scenario is not outlandish to institutions that worry about the military and political dimensions of technology, according to a U.S. Department of Defense study available from the Federation of American Scientists` Project on Government Secrecy. In April 1995, Charles Swett, a defense analyst in the department`s Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, prepared Strategic Assessment: The Internet. Swett begins with a disclaimer: "The views expressed...are those of the author and do not necessarily represent [those]..of the Department," and then speculates on the role of video cameras and fiber optics: "As a result of reductions in the size and cost of high-quality video cameras and improvements in video data-compression technology, all personal computers in the future will be equipped with small video cameras. ...At the same time, the capacity of the communications links connecting PCs to the Internet will greatly expand, due to the replacement of twisted-pair copper telephone wires with fiber-optic cables."

Swett made his forecast without assessing the current telecommunications regime. A door-to-door fiber optics network capable of two-way video delivery is the last thing the telephone and cable-TV industries want. Although Bell Atlantic has renewed its commitment to fiber-to-the-curb, the purpose of that architecture is to bring video to the home, not to bring video out of the home. Supposedly, fiber is for big users such as banks and hospitals, which have a need for high-capacity data paths; it is not for homes, apartments and small businesses, which still lack a demonstrable need for such capacity.

The military perspective may eventually be correct because the Internet`s traffic is frequently exceeding the system`s capacity. The slowdown is caused by computer servers being overwhelmed with requests for data. When a request is not responded to within a certain period, the request is automatically re-sent, worsening the congestion. Presently, there is no shortage of data-transmission capacity. However, just as airport congestion is sometimes handled by keeping planes aloft or extending a flight`s duration, increasing the capacity of the fiber paths allows more data to be temporarily held in transit and to recirculate until the server is ready to handle more traffic. Greater fiber-transmission capacity may relieve the Internet`s congestion, at least until the computer server problems are solved. Even then, there may be congestion at the local level.

Video propaganda

Telecommunications experts agree that the current telephone network could handle voice traffic practically forever. Their concern is that there will be no capacity for video calls in local telephone loops. This begs the question: "Why would individuals want to make video calls to each other?" Swett has an answer: "Politically oriented groups will realize the propaganda potential of video on [the] Internet, and will produce and disseminate video clips supporting their point of view. Opposing groups will engage in video propaganda wars entirely within the Internet medium."

Swett is suggesting that modern culture--particularly American culture--is demanding and will receive access to affordable, sophisticated telecommunications services. The access has to be affordable, otherwise the Internet is not a genuine mass movement. For example, if the price of a video call were $10 per minute, grass-roots political movements by the general population, regardless of their political persuasion, would be better off distributing leaflets at shopping malls. If computer hardware and software makers are planning for the addition of high-quality video cameras to every computer made after 1999, they would be natural allies of Internet service providers and users. Together, the groups would be a potent commercial and cultural force pushing for a door-to-door fiber-optic network on the Internet.

But the network would have enemies. The cable industry would be threatened if Internet users had the ability to transmit the kind of video messages envisioned by Swett. The cable business would lose control over television programming and lose audience, too. Before that happens, the private sector will act to exploit the Internet`s weaknesses: The Internet does not own the communications paths that it uses--no one owns the Internet, and its openness and easy accessibility are contrary to the principles of commerce, which call for security, property rights and guaranteed performance.

Thus, a fiber Internet may be aborted by so-called value-added networks, owned and operated by those businesses that already own the telecommunications paths. The cable and telephone industries are likely to become Internet service providers (ISPs), a troubling notion for current ISPs. According to one observer, "ISPs are consistently having serious problems with phone company service regarding restrictions on the number of lines, hunt group size and pricing. ...The current feeling among ISPs is that the best current business strategy is to build a business of 500 to 1000 subscribers, then sell out to the telephone companies for about [$1000 per] customer rather than attempt to compete." The value-added networks will be everything that the Internet is not: centrally controlled and providing services on a contract basis for a complex schedule of fees.

Psychological operations

The difference between the Internet and value-added networks may be important. Either one could be searched as a database and could bypass the editorial control and policy of established mass media. One network may afford users more protection than the other in the face of deliberate manipulation of information about its users. For example, Swett recommends: "The Internet should be incorporated into our Psyops (Psychological Operations) planning as an additional medium. ...Increasingly, officials in national governments, foreign military officers, business persons and journalists are obtaining access to the Internet and establishing individual-mail addresses. There is even a commercial service that will [soon] offer access to an online database of names, organizational titles, phone and fax numbers, and Internet e-mail addresses of virtually all government officials in all countries. Using this information, it would be possible to employ the Internet as an additional medium for Psyops campaigns conveying the U.S. perspective on issues...rapidly...to a very wide audience."

But Psyops can also be used as a disruptive force. Swett points out the manipulative potential of electronic communications. "Politically active groups using the Internet could be vulnerable to deceptive messages introduced by hostile persons or groups. Far-right groups and far-left groups tend to watch each other, and it is likely that `moles` will obtain access to the other camps` networks for the purpose of disrupting their operations. This would tend to weaken the protection afforded by coding or encrypting messages." It looks like both groups are being watched by a third party. Civil libertarians and democracies might be shocked to think of fiber optics and the Internet in the context of Psyops, but treating Psyops as a forbidden subject and suppressing debate simply keeps the public in dangerous ignorance.

The political aspects of technology always have unanticipated effects. In Germany, neo-Nazi groups use the Internet for their own purposes. In Mexico, Subcommander Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army uses the Internet to communicate directly with journalists and readers in Italy, Germany and Russia. In China, the Internet was a source of information until the government, concerned about so-called spiritual pollution, pulled the plug on 100 Internet sites in China. Perhaps Beijing`s officials considered themselves to be the first victims of Psyops campaigns. Unfortunately for governments worldwide, the Internet is a product of contemporary American culture, an open and polyglot society generally bound together by Western notions of reason, a tolerance for the unusual and fair amount of distrust for hierarchical authority structures--the foundation of government authority in China. The Internet is the embodiment of that distrust, a decentralized network bristling with users who resist efforts to dictate to them from any quarter, whether through ideological demands, technical imperatives or a long-term financial squeeze brought on by the owners of value-added networks. q

More in Earnings Statements