A Tale of Broadband Oppression


Aaron Krowne
April 7, 2002

Once Upon a Time...

On March 14, 2002, NTC Communications disconnected networking service to my home. The reason, which I found out after nearly a week of inquiries, was that they suspected I was sharing my single network connection with my roommates, something that is contrary to their terms of service (the document is called "fair.html", perhaps a subliminal message.)

Why did NTC suspect "connection sharing"? Was it because I was using "too much" bandwidth? No. Was it because there were complaints of illegal activities originating from my address? Nope. In fact, NTC judged that connection sharing was occurring because an NTC technician observed, on a service visit to my apartment, that there were many networked computers therein. Actually, he just observed computers with wires running all about, but this was indeed because me and my roommates have a LAN interconnecting our computers.

NTC at this point made two assumptions: 1) what the technician saw was indeed a LAN, and 2) that this LAN was set up for connection sharing (This would consist of a central machine hooked directly up to the NTC port, with software installed to negociate access to the outside world for other machines on the LAN.)

Nobody at NTC ever asked me if this was taking place. I was disconnected, then, based on assumed violation of terms of service. For this fantasy, I was told I'd have to pay $25 for reconnection. Naturally, I refused.

Currently I sit without service, for which I paid a year in advance and only received 6 months of. In essence, half of a year's worth of networking subscription fees have been swindled from me.

I write this essay at work, where I've essentially been living for the past 3 weeks, as I wait for my DSL order to go through. I never thought something like this would actually happen-- but I've been chased out of my home by NTC, a networking company.

1984 Over Cat5

But this kind of situation is just the tip of the iceberg. Broadband providers like NTC are setting up a Draconian situation whereby they must police their networks and spy on their customers-- not to keep them from abusing the network, but to keep them from violating the arbitrary conditions of the terms of service.

It is now traditional for broadband companies to place limits on the number of computers allowed to each network port. This curious clause defies reason, as computers don't use the internet; people do. It's like charging for power based on the number of lights in a house-- despite the fact that you turn the light on only for the room you're in.

What's worse, however, is that they don't even have the means to prove that connection sharing is taking place, resulting in situations of false accusation such as my own. Packets are just packets; any heuristic that can be constructed to "prove" that these packets are coming from multiple machines behind some interface is first of all imperfect, and second of all can be defeated with further software modifications. NTC knows this is true, they just hope that we're too clueless to call them on it.

The result of this system is the arbitrary disconnection of customers based on very poor circumstantial evidence and the persecution of the technically competent.

Who Are the Victims?

Most people don't notice this sort of thing. This is what companies like NTC are banking on. As long as they are greater experts than the customer, the customer will passively accept whatever conditions are foisted upon them.

However, technically competent customers like myself -- computer hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers, geeks -- anyone who might have more than one computer to their name (and more importantly, more than one computer in use), become suspect under the "law" of the broadband terms of service.

Anyone who shares a network connection between two machines is in violation, irrespective of actual use of the network. If you want to set up a terminal in your kitchen so you can read the news online while you eat breakfast, forget it. You have to have NTC bash another hole in your wall and pay for another port to do that. It doesn't matter that you're simply distributing your own usage of the network across two machines, you broke the rules. And remember: the rules are their own justification.

Again, most people will not notice this problem, but it attacks no less than the very way of life of the technically competent. There are many silent "violators" of NTC's terms of service out there, all using variants of "connection sharing" and "multiple access" as is well within the scope of fair use-- they're just lucky enough not to need a service call from the NTC gestapo.

What's wrong with this Picture?

NTC and other broadband companies have a strange conception of capitalism. They think that part of the deal is that, once they sell you something, they can also tell you how to use it. And not only tell you how to use it, but tell you how to use it beyond issues of legality, beyond their natural ability to discriminate, and beyond any sort of detriment to themselves.

It should be very telling that NTC has to spy on their customers to determine if something is "wrong". Something is definitely very wrong, but it is not the customer in this case.

NTC is a utility company. They may not like this idea, but there is nothing fundamentally different from NTC, who provides networking service, and the phone company. Or the power company. Or the water company, or the gas company.

Who out of this cast of characters tells the customer how to use the commodity that they deliver to their home?

The phone company charges based on usage. If you want to split your phone line to add more phones, no problem. You don't have to call the phone company each time you want to do this; it would be foolish in terms of overhead if this were the case.

The power company doesn't forbid extension cords and power strips. They don't require you to add another outlet for every appliance. They don't care how many appliances you have-- in fact the more the better, since you simply pay based on how much power you use. Kinda makes sense, doesn't it?

I won't go into detail for the other utilities, but the analogy carries over to each of them. In fact, nearly all of the utility companies avoid oppressive practices by selling the customer what they will need to do things themselves, if they so choose.

Nobody does business the way NTC and other broadband companies do business. Nobody tries to reach so far into the customer's private lives -- into their homes, beyond the network port -- which should be the natural boundary of their authority.

More Twisted Capitalism

But NTC has other, unique misconceptions about how capitalism works.

Their business plan has thus far been to make deals with high-density housing complexes, under which they will provide networking to the entire complex. A network port is provided for each bedroom in these complexes. The demographics of all of these complexes, in college towns, is of course college students. The idea is that one can simply think of apartment complex as a glorified dorm, and that residents will have to pay for networking services, whether they like it or not (just like in dorms, where networking is a part of tuition and fees. They admit as much on their web site, but of course, they want you to be excited about this.)

Unfortunately, apartment complexes are not glorified dorms. They are not on campus, they are not associated with universities, and residents neither agree with nor sign any agreement with NTC regarding the installation of network infrastructure. And they don't have to subscribe to NTC's services.

I'm not sure if NTC bases their revenues on 100% subscription from these wired apartment complexes, but they sure act like it. You see, NTC thinks that they deserve a subscription for every port they installed-- ports installed without consultation with individual residents, or more importantly, without any sort of contractual agreement.

This attitude is beautifully illustrated by an NTC employee's comment to myself, as I argued with him (and others) through e-mail: "if you weren't sharing the connection, then how did your roommates get online?"

In NTC's world, every sane person would want their services (and of course, wouldn't consider any competitors.)

This makes NTC a slightly different beast than your typical broadband company and explains the somewhat invasive terms of service discussed already. NTC clearly operates on the principle of 100% (or near 100%) subscription, and they will do everything in their power to force subscription upon those they feel should be indentured to them. Connection sharing, or anything that looks remotely like connection sharing, is too risky for them. They base their survival on forcing everyone in their "territory" to be an obedient "customer".

Where's the Value?

NTC shouldn't be excused from the same basic and natural criterion every other company must follow-- namely that they "deserve" only what customers are willing to pay for the provision of something that is of value to them.

For those capable of setting up their own networks, NTC's extra ports are of zero value. If they spent wads of cash to install them, too bad. If NTC has a problem with this, then they could very easily compensate by charging based on usage-- just like all of the other utility companies.

As a bonus, this would instantly solve all of their problems with bandwidth abuse-- problems which are completely unrelated to the paritioning of one connection to multiple machines (in fact, the bandwidth abuse problem is the exact opposite of this one.)

More importantly, it would solve the ethical problems stemming from falsely accusing customers of violations.

The only explanation I can find for the condescending, oppressive practices as embodied by NTC's terms of services is inflexibility. They made their business plan and they're sticking to it-- to hell with everyone's rights.

Enough is Enough

NTC's terms of service are a highly tendentious, quasi-legal attempt to change the rules of the market. NTC's plan is to force people to become customers, and then force these same customers to use the commodity they purchase from NTC in a specific manner. The fact that these people are in NTC's "territory" purely as a matter of physical coincedence adds a comical twist: NTC has "conquered" them and simply wishes to impose its own "law" upon the defeated. Should we really be allowing corporations to act as miniature governments like this?

This page is partially an effort to reverse this trend. NTC has forged ahead in the market with a flawed business plan: in order to do things their way, they have to (or believe they have to) act in a way that tramples on consumer's rights. I suggest they take a cue from the other utility companies, while they still have a chance.

If NTC is going to continue to be foolish enough to rely on subscriptions to physical ports instead of bandwidth usage for their fiscal survival, I propose we "starve" them out of existence by act of "connection sharing"-- in every NTC-wired apartment. Give them what they deserve.

NTC needs to be shown that they cannot get away with imposition of their own "law" upon those who will not have it.

At least, not without a standing army.



This essay is Copyright © 2002 Aaron Krowne. You may reproduce it without modification or link to it without further permission. For any other forms of usage, please contact akrowne@vt.edu.