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Unfettered Access

January 20, 2011

Fans of the 1987 television series, "Max Headroom," will remember the show's basic premise, a future dystopia in which television screens are everywhere and the television networks have become more powerful than the government. Not only are the networks more powerful than the government, the government acts as a puppet state of the media and passes laws such as one forbidding switching off a television. After all, advertisers need eyeballs. The subtitle of the series was "20 Minutes into the Future," and here we are, a little more than 20 years into the future, seeing about the same things. Your first clue is the ubiquity of television screens. They're in the supermarket checkout line and anywhere people are expected to linger for at least a minute.[1]

Media manipulation of the government started with the Copyright Term Extension Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It continues today with the secrecy surrounding certain provisions of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. Presently, there's the problem of enforcing net neutrality, the idea that no one should have a preferred channel on the Internet. Some Internet service providers are attempting to extract payment from companies to allow their content to reach the user, a user who has already paid for network access.

Some of Max Headroom's twenty-minutes-into-the-future cohort weren't about to docilely let the media mavens have their way with them. One of these is Blank Reg, a futuristic version of the pirate radio DJs of the 1960s. Reg is a "blank," a person who is not listed in any government database. You would probably call Reg a pirate VJ. Reg broadcasts his "Big Time Television Network" with his unfettered content from a converted Winnebago. He's ably assisted by the glamorous, but business-minded, Dominique, who somehow secures financing for Reg's illegal operation and acts as a money laundress.

Man wearing Max Headroom mask in the Chicago signal intrusion incident of November 22, 1987.

Not exactly Max.
A man wearing a Max Headroom mask.
Click for details.

Reg realized that a political solution was impossible, so he created a mobile television station in defiance of media-controlled television. It's the mindset of technologists that they look for a technical solution to problems. That's the type of solution that technology writer Douglas Rushkoff proposes to the net neutrality problem.[2] Rushkoff is a prolific author who teaches media studies at New York University.[3] The problem, as Rushkoff sees it, is not just net neutrality, but the idea that the Internet is no longer controlled by its users. It's controlled by corporations, the media and the government. His solution is quite radical. Says Rushkoff,
"I propose we abandon the Internet, or at least accept the fact that it has been surrendered to corporate control like pretty much everything else in Western society."

Harking back to the Good-Old-Days of FidoNet, Rushkoff proposes a user-built and user-controller network, a "real networked commons." Among the ways to implement this network at the physical layer, he suggests telephone connection, ham radio, whitespace spectra and WiMax. Although using a 3G/4G data connection would still rely on the whims of your wireless carrier, this might be workable. The amatuer radio solution won't work, unless everyone gets an amateur radio license and somehow duplicates the transcontinental microwave communications system of years past, but on a grander scale. WiMax, however, could be workable. Rushkoff is a media expert, but not a radio expert, so he doesn't follow-through on any possible implementation.

If user-developed hardware were developed, or a commodity router were suitably modified, I could host a data concentrator for my local community of about fifty houses. Why would I do this? For the same reason that I write articles for Wikipedia and donate photographs to the Wikimedia Commons. Fifty users at 20 Mbps each would be 1 Gbps, just at the current WiMax maximum data rate. The signals from my concentrator would be transmitted to an upstream location, etc. At that point, the bandwidth starts to get significant, although it's still in a manageable realm. Quite a few experiments have been undertaken with long-range WiFi, but it's important to realize that the bit error rate is a function of received power, and "getting" a WiFi signal ten miles away doesn't translate to an acceptable bit rate. Farther upstream, some heavy hardware, such as leased fiberoptic cables, would be needed.

This is just a straw man idea, since a binary tree isn't the best way to make a network, and some network expertise would be needed to devise a better and more robust architecture. Of course, bandwidth will increase the farther upstream you travel, so some serious money will be needed to finish the top levels. Rushkoff suggests foundation funding and support from universities. Also, users now pay in the range of $30-50 for internet access, so many would be willing to make a similar donation to the network commons. A public library would be a good network node, since they are generally built to service a local community of manageable size, but it would be important that such a node is unfettered by government oversight.

It's quite apparent that amateur radio has not been attracting young people. Dropping the Morse Code requirement has helped a little, but I see nothing but gray hair (or no hair) during my yearly visit to the local hamfest. Young people are attracted more to computing, and a network commons may become the next form of amateur radio.

Now, back to Max Headroom. You can reacquaint yourself with the characters and episodes by the series' listing on the Internet Movie Database. In mid-August, 2010, the complete series was issued on DVD for about $50.[5-7] I should have remembered this when everyone was asking me what I wanted for Christmas. Well, there's always Father's Day.


  1. Maria Sciullo, "Digital Out-of-Home an on-screen revolution," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 9, 2011
  2. Douglas Rushkoff, "The Next Net," January 3, 2011.
  3. Douglas Rushkoff Personal Web Site.
  4. Wi-Fi Cloud Covers Rural Oregon (Wired, October 16, 2005)
  5. Nicolas Rapold, "Look Who’s Back: The Original Talking Head," New York Times, August 6, 2010.
  6. Jen Chaney, "'Max Headroom': There's still time to catch the wave," Washington Post, August 10, 2010.
  7. Franklin Harris, "Max Headroom's future finally arrives," Decatur Daily, August 12, 2010.

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