Building Broadband Infrastructure from the Grassroots: the Case of Home LANs in Belarus
- Assistant Professor, Information & Operation Management Department, ESCP Europe Paris, France, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Professor of Internet Studies, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, E-mail: email@example.com
THE HOME LAN COMMUNITIES OF BELARUS: AN OVERVIEW
Home local area networks (LANs) are comprised of communities of individuals in households who link their home computers through cables (later through fiber optics and radio modems) in order to create a shared computer network. This paper describes the development of home LANs created in Minsk, Belarus. Similar networks have been developed in Russia and Ukraine, but in these nations, the majority of home LANs were transformed rapidly into more commercial forms; or were integrated with the infrastructures of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) due to a faster development of Internet services and de-monopolization of national telecommunications in these latter countries. In Belarus, residential Internet access remained significantly less affordable, primarily due to the continuation of a state monopoly by Beltelecom. The Belarusian state provider did not launch an inexpensive dial-up service for residential Internet-access until 1999. Private ISPs were also required to buy their Internet traffic only from the monopoly provider and at high prices, thus restricting ISPs to re-selling services only to end-users. The private ISPs focused on selling Internet access to businesses and other organizations as their services were too expensive for individual household Internet users.
Created in such conditions, home LANs began to develop through the efforts of citizens. These grassroots initiatives were used by individuals to address the digital divide in response to the lack of affordable Internet services. The first home LANs in Minsk were created in 1994-1996 by amateurs primarily interested in playing multi-party games, sharing files, and providing Internet-like services. In order to overcome a lack of financial resources and special technical knowledge, home LANs technologies were improvised on a common property basis through a variety of practice-driven innovations. Once they had incorporated a significant number of users, home LANs began some successful collaborations with private ISPs by sharing the Internet access aggregated to multiple users, in this way becoming the main infrastructure for residential Internet access till 2010, when such infrastructures were announced to be illegal by the state. According to some evaluations, in 2010 home LANs had provided access for several million people, or about 90 percent of residential home computers in the country (Belarusian News Portal 2010).
This study was based on an in-depth qualitative case study approach and multiple data sources (Denzin & Lincoln 2000; Markus 1983; Yin 2009). The data collection period lasted from January 2010 till April 2011 and incorporated multiple stages, from an exploratory study, to a main period of data collection and follow-up interviews. Data sources include 73 interviews (57 interviews with home LAN users and administrators, and 16 interviews with Internet providers), as well as documents, archival data and direct observations. All interviews were semi-structured and open-ended with an average interview lasting about 40 minutes each. Documents include maps of home LAN infrastructures and home LAN statutes, and home LAN web pages. Archival data include documented and video recorded opinions of experts on home LANs; articles in newspapers and journals; more than 30 pages of the national non-profit IT portals publishing news on a daily basis (http://it.tut.by, http://www.interminsk.com/, http://providers.by/, http://techlabs.by/); related government laws; and materials from the national home LAN website, homenet.tut.by. Direct participation includes observations of how users interact and make sense with home LAN technologies. The following sections focus on technological aspects of home LAN development through two main periods of its development.
PROVIDING ALTERNATIVE INTERNET INFRASTRUCTURES (1994-2000)
The first home LANs were built by neighboring friends using network interface cards (net cards), hubs, switches, and direct cable links between home computers. There was a constant learning process in finding out how to do things, avoid mistakes and create new services. Neighbors met regularly and voted on key decisions concerning the introduction of monthly fees, equipment changes, and the extension of the home LAN. As the number of users in the network increased, so did the structure of the organization and the technologies. For example, servers (usually home-made from old PCs with Linux/Unix OS) were introduced with changes to the network's topology (Figure 1).
Connections were made between multi-storey buildings by stringing cables through the air ("by air") (Figure 2a, b) and underground coaxial cables, and later with fiber optics and radio links.
Eventually, home LAN services developed from game and file exchange to more advanced and community-oriented services such as chat, file data bases, media galleries, among others. Home LAN technologies and services of this period were comprised of:
- Data bases of internal home LAN documents such as home LAN statutes, local community-developed documents prescribing such aspects as network goals, mission, users' rights, networking rules, etc.
- Videos created by administrators that provided step by step instructions on typical set up questions.
- Internet radio, initially based on switches and later based on servers. Network radio combined transmission from over the air radio stations with programs, news and discussions created by the home LAN users.
- File search engines, which provided daily up-dated databases of files open for sharing by users` computers.
- Network forums and chats that provided a space for discussions and within-network communication. (Eventually, home LANs started using IRC-based chats and forums assisting in organizing for communication of the growing number of users and enabling their division into administrators, moderators and users. Additionally, the introduction of IRC++ technologies allowed the creation of distributed databases at users' computers.).
- DNS and DHCP data on the PCs of network users with their IP addresses.
- Technical maps of home LANs, developed by home LAN administrators to assist users and provide information on the network architectures, topologies, communication and equipment. In addition, social maps showed the boundaries of a particular home LAN and identified users, providing some of their personal and professional information, photos and addresses. This networking contributed to a specialized home LAN culture.
- Programs stimulating resource openness and communication in the network (Fly link DC++) and setting up a threshold of information open to other users (in Gbs).
- Backup services to save information on servers from loss in case of damage.
HOME LANS AND INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDERS (2001-2010)
By 2000, having developed into organizations with several hundred users on average, a number of LANs initiated cooperation with private ISPs. Given their size, they were able to negotiate more affordable Internet prices for their network's users and a number of bonuses. ISPs provided home LANs with a shared ADSL modem and a monetary stimulus for administrators (typically, 10% of the network Internet revenue).
Introduction of such Internet-access to the home LAN infrastructure boosted the development of an even greater variety of innovative services. Useful programs and codes found by users on the Internet were appropriated and adapted to comply with the local network's particular needs. Additionally to the above discussed, home LAN technologies and services of this period comprised the following:
- Shared Internet access enabling the signal from the modem to be multiplied, reinforced and used by multiple users. Home LAN servers were programmed to distribute Internet traffic between several network modems in order to stabilize the load.
- Links with several providers to the same network, allowing a majority of home LANs to negotiate with ISPs more effectively by not creating a monopoly for any single ISP.
- Fiber optic connections were created in home LANs both locally (if a network was organized for resources, equipment and users with knowledge in this domain) and by some ISP initiatives, such as when a LAN was strategic for the ISP in the area.
- Radio links enabling long-distance (up to 2km) connections to neighboring home LANs or multi-story buildings within the network. Radio links were created on the basis of switches with Wi-Fi functions, replacing their small antennas with larger antennas.
- Some home LANs developed their own websites (such as http://dom15.narod.ru/users.html).
- A national website of home LANs, (http://homenet.tut.by/), opened in 2002 and remained active at the time of writing. With the website, innovations developed in a particular home LANs were easily spread to others. For example, some administrators developed a technology of lightning rods protecting switches during storms and posted their innovation with detailed electrical schemas on the websites while other people started commercial, albeit, home-made manufacturing of these technologies for home LANs. Further, the website contained a database with addresses of all home LANs and contacts for their administrators.
Figure 3 illustrates the evolution of network infrastructures and services since the introduction of the Internet. As thefigure shows, services developed in home LANs were later copied by private and government providers and became the prototypes of their own Ethernet and commercial ISP services.
This case study illustrates how user-driven innovations and technological solutions can emerge from the grassroots to address the digital divide and social exclusion. The study is in line with other research arguing that ICT-enabled networking has a vibrant transformative potential through providing alternative and local solutions to the already existing institutions and actors, as well as meshing up and reconnecting the diversity of old and new actors, i.e. the industry and the grassroots (Castells 1996; Dutton 2009; Dutton & Eynon 2009; Zorina 2012) to build new electronic infrastructures.