The Manifest Destiny of telecommunications networks

17 March 2020

As this piece evolved it has become somewhat of a companion to an earlier reflection called the Right to the Network. If you have time, it is recommended to read that one as well.

Human beings have always transformed the environments in which they live, for better or for worse. In the modern era, this is quite evident in terms of public (and now oftentimes private) infrastructure such as railroads, highways, power and communication lines, cellular towers, and so on. In turn, the changes we make to the physical environment transform how we live and interact, including our perceptions of time and space.

To illustrate this point, we will look at the history of the railroad, the expansion of which begins with an idea, or a moral imperative, even: manifest destiny. Coined by a journalist in 1845, the term refers to the idea that expanding republican democracy and capitalism across the North American continent was an act of divine destiny. Ideology begat policy, and in the 1860’s, through the Pacific Railroad Acts, public lands in what is now the United States of America were gifted to states and railroad companies to promote railroad construction. The railroads brought misery to some and great prosperity to others through the forced removal of indigenous peoples’ from their ancestral lands and the rapid population of the western part of North America by white settlers. No matter who or where you were on the continent, things were different after the railroad.

Into the 1880’s, most places in the United States and Canada had their own local time based on the position of the sun over their town square. So noon for two neighboring counties or towns might be a few minutes apart. As railroads emerged and revolutionized how people and goods moved about, it became evident that to avoid accidents and provide schedule certainty for passengers, some kind of unified time zones were necessary. In fact, it was not government, but the private railroad companies that themselves defined and introduced time zones to North America.

While it is difficult to imagine what it was like to have 300 time zones as in the late 1800’s, people more or less got by without much trouble. That was until a new technology, the railroad, came along and literally changed the way people thought about and interacted with time and space. A difference of a few minutes mattered greatly now.

Today, there are companies similar in reach and size to the railroad companies of the 1800’s that have been building communications infrastructure throughout the United States and the rest of the world. The forebears of these companies also engaged in the transformation of space and time in similar ways to, and sometimes in conjunction with, the railroads: land was repurposed, stolen, purchased and so on in order to ensure that the telegraph and then telephone lines (and now fiber optic cables and wireless towers) could be built. So while settlers were spreading out into the western part of the continent, telecommunications brought people back “together”, essentially condensing time and space. Whereas it took weeks or months to get a message across the continent before, now it took a matter of seconds.

A modern-day parallel to this manifest destiny of communications and transportation infrastructures can be drawn with, and is useful in order to contextualize, a 2018 Federal Communications Commission order that preempts municipal authority over the use of public property for 5G wireless deployments. Notably, this order has yet to be implemented due to fierce opposition in U.S. courts from many localities and civil society stakeholders.

As the push to 5G and attendant network “densification” has become its own kind of moral imperative, telecommunications companies have been voicing their concerns around how localities are able to slow them down with fees, licensing requirements and failure to act expeditiously on applications. In response, the FCC set out new rules for local governments in three main areas. The first is around charging reasonable fees (as defined by the FCC) for deploying wireless infrastructure, specifically small cells. The second is to reduce the restrictions placed on where infrastructure can be deployed. And the third limits the amount of time local authorities have to rule on deployment applications.

To quickly give some context for this, there is a major shift underway in how telecommunications companies, in this case mobile operators, seek to deploy their networks. One reason is the aim to provide much more bandwidth to each user and another is the use of much higher frequencies in the millimeter wave bands (its own sort of manifest destiny with regards to spectrum). Both have motivated mobile operators to reduce cell size, which means shortening the distance between the access node or base station and end user as much as possible. In urban 4G networks, the distance between cells or nodes is about 400 meters. For 5G, the goal is to reduce this distance to under 100 meters. In other words, at least 4 times as many base stations will be installed compared to 4G.

Ironically, 80% of mobile data is consumed indoors, and so far the industry has not figured out how to get 5G in the very high, millimeter wave frequencies to work well indoors. This major deficiency raises eyebrows further regarding why so much emphasis is being put on deregulating equipment outdoors when it will only carry 20% of the data traffic.

At its heart, this conflict is about local people deciding how their land and public facilities can be used, by whom and for what purposes. It is questionable that local governments should have to forego their own, inherently democratic processes and instead respond to time and cost limits imposed on them by the Federal government on behalf of large telecom companies.

Sam Liccardo, the mayor of San Jose, California, sums this up well:

The bad news is: as a result of this FCC ruling … the FCC has completely cut the legs out from under cities by simply mandating that all leases on public infrastructure, the poles that the public, the taxpayers build and maintain must be offered at below market rates … This results in a billion-dollar subsidy mandated by the FCC for the benefit of big telcos.”

The United States is not the only country grappling with this. For example, Brazil has regulation from 2015 (Ley N° 13.116), known colloquially as the Antenna Law, which prohibits provinces and municipalities from imposing any conditions that may affect the choice of technology, network topology and quality of services of telecom operators. With this rule, the installation of “small” infrastructure for telecommunications networks does not require a permit, and thanks to another law (N° 13.097, articles 134 y 135) there is no charge or tax associated with installing small cells either. In Europe there is discussion around new regulation called “Light deployment regime for small-area wireless access points” that would define the necessary characteristics for small cells to be exempted from individual prior permits across the European Union.

While the specifics of each law or case are interesting it is key to step back and understand this phase of the digital transformation of our lives from the point of view of territory, as, once again, the space we live in is being redefined. To use more conceptual or theoretical terms, we are in a process of deterritorialization and reterritorialization. The former being the eradication of social, political, or cultural practices from their native places and populations while the latter is the restructuring of a place or territory that has experienced deterritorialization. The two terms were originally employed in the 1970s in the work of French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (from whose work Rhizomatica also takes its name).

So when we talk about the FCC in the United States bowing to the influence of telecom companies to impose rules on localities concerning how much radiation people should be exposed to, what aesthetically acceptable wireless infrastructure looks like, or the eventual consequences of these platforms on transportation and access to virtual reality and so on, we are talking about a structured plan of deterritorialization and reterritorialization. In other words, taking the places we live and transforming them in a manner that forces people to interact differently—physically, symbolically and emotionally. This means new patterns of movement, new ways of organizing daily and political life, and certain cultural and cognitive transformations.

What we are experiencing with the FCC ruling and other pro-small cell regulations, is the latest phase of the manifest destiny of the Internet, with both the service provided and the network over which it is provided having immense impacts on our relationship with our lived environment and our ability to make local decisions. Telecommunications networks and the services they support, especially large social media (e.g. Facebook) and resource allocation (e.g. AirBnB) platforms, have in many ways become inherently globalizing and anti-local. This is not to say that they are not useful locally, but rather that there is a troubling trend towards the use of global platforms that are not locally controlled or accountable, the negative effects of which have been documented elsewhere.

While it is true that the present is always giving birth to the future, the question of who defines how this happens is paramount. Do we want a world further shaped by the manifest destiny and free reign over the land of corporate interests in the guise of more “flexible” regulations, or one that ensures that local people and communities are able to be the drivers of how digital transformation happens? To that end, what would another way of doing things look like? Is there a way to build digital infrastructure that doesn’t lead to such intense deterritorialization and reterriorialization?

One place to look for answers is the burgeoning movement of community networks around the world. How we ensure the future is a place we want to live is directly addressed by the methods and practices of community networks and their insistence that local people can and should build and govern their own networks. To provide a personal experience to illustrate the point, I am reminded of debates that happened early on in the co-design phase of the community cellular project Rhizomatica helped start in Oaxaca, Mexico.

In 2013 Rhizomatica co-facilitated a series of large community meetings in Talea de Castro, a rural village in the northern Sierra of Oaxaca, to decide what the cellular network they wanted to install might look like. A recurring topic was around how the introduction of a cellular system could alter face-to-face interactions. As you might imagine, in these kinds of small towns, people are in constant personal contact—something perceived as positive and helping to maintain and strengthen personal and collective ties among the residents, and without which there would be no “community”. People wondered collectively about what would happen if all of a sudden these daily personal interactions transpired instead over the phone. What would the community feel like? What would be lost and what gained?

These issues are complex. For example, as a region that has undergone substantial emigration of its citizens to the United States, Talea de Castro’s concerns about the community cellular system’s impact on life inside the town were juxtaposed with hopes that the network could bring friends and relatives outside the town back into the community fold, if only digitally. Another issue raised was around where to site the equipment and the coverage area that would be most useful. As many Taleans are farmers, there was intense interest around ensuring coverage in their agricultural fields one or two hours away on foot but where nobody lives.

The above is an example of deterritorialization/reterritorialization triggered by the introduction of new technology, but one in which local people were able to truly contend with the challenges inherent in digital technologies and able to collectively devise strategies that they deemed would limit negative effects and increase positive ones. One concrete proposal from the townspeople that was implemented was to impose a 5-minute limit for local calls but unlimited and free calling into the town from outside. In this way, they hoped to remind people that it is better to have a long conversation in person while also increasing their ability to interact with loved ones abroad, which they believed strengthened the community. Furthermore, the cellular tower was placed to ensure coverage in the majority of the fields as well as the town center so that farmers could call if they needed help or to consult crop prices.

The digital transition gripping the world is not felt and experienced in the same way everywhere. In some places people are uninterested in being online and want nothing to do with efforts to connect them. In other places people feel like they need to be online all the time and desperately hope faster connections become more ubiquitous. We don’t all want the same thing in regards to connectivity and digital technologies. When we create policies that reinforce and privilege one-size-fits-all policies over local preferences (and the systems that represent and enforce them), we are, while it may sound overwrought, committing acts of violence and domination against those who do not buy into the manifest destiny of the Internet and telecommunications networks. Just as people have a right to be connected, they have a right to not be connected, or at the very least the right to decide how.

As the small example from the community networks movement shows (and there are many more of them), other ways to address the problem exist—ways that respect the diversity of places and their interests and worldviews and that bring local people to the table to solve local issues.