I previously worked at a mid-sized ISP for 7 years. When I started, our most popular product was 33.6k and 56k dialup for $20/month. We offered Linux and OpenVMS shells to all customers, Usenet service, e-mail, spam/virus filtering, and free 24-hour technical support staffed by local people. We had lots of dialup capacity from the phone company (Ameritech) and connected our three POPs together with T3s.
ADSL started to make headway as a faster alternative to dialup and we lost customers. As part of Ameritech’s merger with SBC, the government required them to offer ISPs like ours access to resell their ADSL service at wholesale prices. Just like dialup, the telco provided the wiring, but the customer connected to our equipment and we routed them out to the Internet. As time went on, SBC started marketing ADSL much more aggressively, offering it to end users for cheaper than they were selling it to us. It was hard to compete with $15/month ADSL from a big company like SBC.
As Comcast got bigger in our area and upgraded their infrastructure, they started pushing cable Internet service harder and offered higher speeds than ADSL could do. Since we had no access to cable infrastructure and the telco was pushing us out, we invested in our own 10mbit wireless service. We ran leased lines to water and cell phone towers in each nearby suburb and put big wireless antennas on each customer’s roof. The equipment was new and expensive, it required hiring new employees trained in tower climbing, and cost a lot to maintain. We had to do daily truck rolls to realign customer antennas, we had to deal with interference issues with other equipment on our shared towers, and as we grew, we had to upgrade our connectivity to each tower. We replaced some leased lines with big wireless backhauls to other towers and then back to our buildings.
During all of that time, many of the other independent local ISPs got bought up by bigger ones, those in turn getting bought by even bigger ones. I can only remember one other ISPs that is still around and independent, and their website looks like it did back in 1999, still offering 56k dialup service.
Going on a decade later, Comcast is now merged with NBC and provides Internet, TV, and phone service in one. This company providing Internet service now has a financial interest in policing what its Internet customers are doing with regard to copyright, as well as monitoring what its Internet customers are watching in terms of media and advertising. A lot of users don’t even use their ISP’s e-mail systems anymore, opting for things like Gmail because it’s better than most webmail systems and they don’t mind targeted advertising.
I have Internet service from Comcast because it’s basically the only high-speed option in Chicago. ADSL is at most 6mbit/768kbit, AT&T’s U-verse isn’t available, and wireless options from companies like the one I used to work at don’t work in Chicago (too dense, too many buildings, have to install equipment on apartment buildings, etc.)
The telco got broken up and everyone can use their infrastructure, but it’s not very useful anymore. The fact that Comcast’s NBC merger was approved is a fair warning that they don’t stand a chance of being broken up any time soon, nor will they get regulated to the point of having to give up access to their infrastructure.
The idea of starting an independent ISP keeps popping up in my head, until I think about all of this and realize there’s practically no way to be an actual service provider anymore without having millions of dollars of infrastructure. The other day I thought, why not revert Comcast and other big ISPs into a dumb pipe and avoid dealing with expensive infrastructure?
This ISP could start as a “virtual” one that ships a hardware box to customers that acts as their router, but it just does an IPsec tunnel over their existing DSL/cable connection to this ISP’s servers somewhere. It provides the standard e-mail, webmail, spam/virus filtering, DNS, and other services that ISPs do, and it fairly routes your traffic out to the Internet without snooping on your data or acting in the financial interests of any other companies. Logging would be kept to an absolute minimum and user privacy and security would be the absolute top priorities.
I know there are things like Tor and the dozens of VPN providers around, but Tor is not a full-time solution and its exit nodes can be sketchy for plaintext traffic. Most of the VPN providers seem so shady and designed as just a “start OpenVPN when you want to download a torrent” service. I want to start a respectable company that people will feel comfortable routing all of their traffic through, as well as actually using it for their e-mail, Usenet, chat, etc.
As the company grows (or laws or technology changes), owning infrastructure and connecting users directly might be feasible down the road, but for now the service could just rely on the existing infrastructure and tunnel over it. The infrastructure needed for this ISP would be relatively inexpensive to start, just limited to a few colocated servers, a switch, IPsec terminator(s), and IP space. The technical nature of the service would attract mostly experienced users to start, so technical support requirements would be limited. The hardware box sold/leased to customers would be a small, low-power device capable of doing IPsec at up to, say, 30mbit/sec and have a web GUI for simple administration. The service could also support doing IPsec from a laptop or mobile device, to protect users at coffee shops and the like.
I suppose the question is whether enough people value privacy anymore enough to pay for such a service on top of their monthly Internet bill.