network micro-geography

Economic activity is not distributed uniformly (or randomly) across space. Economic activity has long been highly concentrated in cities. Moreover, larger city size is associated with a greater rate of innovation.[1] The exact mechanism by which concentration of person in geographic space fosters innovation is not well-understood, but the effect is clear.

Community-based networks, such as open public local access networks (OPLANs), make cities more important features of network macro-geography. In discussions of investments in community-based networks, interconnection between community-based networks tends to receive relatively little attention. That’s unfortunate. Just as the a city’s relationship to ports, airports, and interstate highways has a major effect on its development, the same is true for a community network in relation to more geographically comprehensive network structures.

What about geography at the scale of community-based networks? Malcolm J. Matson, who developed the concept of an OPLAN in 1984, has emphasized that an OPLAN has a more uniform topography than the historical telco switching-office hierarchy. Two typical characteristics of an OPLAN are:

  • service and content ‘providers’ are not differentiated from service and content ‘consumers’. Any party connected to or using the OPLAN can freely assume either role. …
  • global connectivity beyond the OPLAN is achieved (as at present) through any telecoms operator or ISP who directly or via an interconnect agreement, has access to a trunk fibre (or satellite) which serves any building (subject to planning constraints) connected to the OPLAN (i.e. the OPLAN is ‘unbundled end-to-end’)[2]

The ideal is that “any point on the network is as good a place for content or application origination as any other.”[3] The intention seems to be to avoid the economic power that control of end-offices gives telcos.

Eliminating geographic concentrations of network-based activities, like eliminating cities, is neither possible nor desirable. Particular points in a community network are likely to become more desirable points for network interconnection and for application and content hosting. The challenge is to get a geographic structure that serves the common good, not the interests of a particular company.

Some related work:

  • Ideas for geographically comprehensive lattice of competing, independently owned network interconnection points
  • Thinking about structural reform for communications networks


[1] Luís M. A. Bettencourt, José Lobo, Dirk Helbing, Christian Kühnert, and Geoffrey B. West (2007), “Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 104 n. 17 (April 24) pp. 7301-7306.

[2] Malcolm J. Matson (2004), “The Open Public Local Access Network: The Concept and Emerging Realization,” White Paper.

[3] Id. p. 18.

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