The Problem With Always-On

Ever since I got my broadband connection two years ago, its chief benefit has been that it’s always on.

That is, as soon as I turn on my computer in the morning, my email is waiting for me, and the Web is available. Both tools are there until I turn off the machine at night, or, if I want, I can roll on through the night.

This capability has become the center of much developer attention. By connecting sensors in appliances to an always-on connection, they can be monitored and can call the repairperson for you. (No more waiting for the electrician.) Or you can connect to your burglar alarm. The possibilities are endless.

But those applications won’t happen if the system isn’t always on. There are two big hurdles to that which we didn’t foresee when I got my connection.

The first hurdle is technical. Despite the law, and despite their promises, the incumbent local exchange carriers (Bell companies) demand a monopoly over digital subscriber line (DSL) service; yet, at the same time, they’re incapable of providing the service on the scale needed.

Consider my case. For some time my DSL (first installed by BellSouth) functioned well. Then there were hiccups, and I moved to EarthLink, which also let me build a home network around the line. Because EarthLink isn’t a phone company, it can’t control all aspects of the line. Some are still under the control of BellSouth.

But I recently learned that, in order to have EarthLink call BellSouth, I have to disable my network. (The first time this happened it cost me the equivalent of $200 to get it back.) In other words, I’m still dependent on BellSouth (and its requirements). (I have friends with cable modems — they report the same kinds of customer service nightmares.)

The solution to this is backup. I have a battery backup for my system and a tape backup for my files. I need a backup for my Internet connection as well. The best backup in this case would be a modem, plus a program that automatically starts that modem up when the broadband connection goes down, pings the broadband provider regularly, and turns the modem off when the connection comes back. (Most always-on applications are narrowband anyway.)

The second problem is legal. Copyright.Net has recently begun spying on client machines looking for available material subject to copyright, and then firing off emails demanding these people be disconnected from the Internet.

Rather than argue copyright again, how about arguing the more practical problem? Are you going to leave your computer on all day so anyone can spy on what is inside it, or are you going to turn it off to protect yourself?

The solution to this problem is straightforward. All broadband PCs must have firewalls. Their defaults must be to refuse connections to spiders. You may be able to let in the burglar-alarm person or the repairperson selectively (specifying their IP addresses to the firewall), but the default must be that you don’t enter a client without its consent. (Even if it’s the government with a warrant, you still deserve notification, the equivalent of a knock on the door.)

Without these protections, few people will support always-on, just as few people will support unlocked doors. Delays in implementing solutions delay the broad acceptance of broadband. They will also delay the birth of the always-on market and the end of the Internet recession.

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