The original ISP movement grew out of the computer bulletin boards of hobbyists whose offerings were bolstered by "freenets" that gave away access to the Internet resource.
In the financial excitement of the last few years, we have forgotten this. Before anything becomes a worthwhile industry, it must first be a passion, driven by idealists anxious to help people.
There are plenty of precedents. The auto industry started with idealistic bike shop owners. The broadcasting industry began with idealistic two-way radio operators, and the PC industry started off with groups such as the Homebrew Computer Club. The birth of the Internet itself wasn't about money but about engineers doing something they thought useful and fun.
This story has all the elements that made the bulletin board system (BBS) movement so compelling to me a decade ago. There's the old-time idealist, played here by Brewster Kahle. There's the overwrought rhetoric, displayed in comparisons with Gnutella and Napster. There are the anarchic idealists of Guerilla.Net and the businessman who underestimates even himself, Matt Westervelt of Seattle Wireless.
What they don't have is a whole lot of money. From my experience with the BBS movement, I'd say that's probably a good thing. By and large, these are not the people who will make their fortunes from what they're building. There's no Henry Ford, Bill Gates, or Steve Case in this bunch (although he or she might be using one of these systems to read this very story).
Take Kahle, for example. I'm a huge fan of Kahle. He was the founder of WAIS and used to headline Internet events before anyone had heard of the Internet. After selling WAIS to AOL, Kahle launched "the Internet archive," which became Alexa Internet (now part of Amazon.com).
The digerati have never understood Kahle. He seems to exist in some netherworld between the Ted Nelsons and the Steve Cases. He's always pushing something years before it's worth pushing, always just missing the big brass ring of fortune, and never regretting a minute of it. When Kahle gets behind something, you can be sure it's not yet ready for prime time. You can also be sure it's just one great business plan away from being ready.
In some ways, wireless broadband may be much closer to market than even Kahle imagines. The recent ISPCON show was filled with the necessary equipment. Losses in DSL and failures to get into cable are pushing ISPs toward these equipment makers.
The biggest problem is that these systems use unlicensed frequencies. They have to be shared to be useful. These idealists are in the best possible position to create a sharing regime that will stick.
And what happens after that? Then, my friend, you and anyone you know can get fast, fast broadband access to the Internet for little or no money. That's what it will take to get this industry rolling again -- a little idealism.
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Dana Blankenhorn has been a business reporter for more than 20 years. He has written parts of five books and currently contributes to Advertising Age, Business Marketing, NetMarketing, the Chicago Tribune, Boardwatch, CLEC Magazine, and other publications. His own newsletter, A-Clue.Com, is published weekly.
March 19, 2014