Alternative Communication Technologies Throughout History

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This exploration of the history of alternative communication technologies and networks (“alternets”) aims at informing the action of contemporary community-based networking and communication services by drawing lessons from past successes and failures of attempts to counter monopolies and concentration in akin communication systems. The fast-pace technological development, the so-called Internet “revolution,” and the popular and academic discourses about “new media” and “emerging media” have obliterated the fact that the Internet is not the first information technology whose inception has profoundly changed human societies. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, the telegraph, telephone, radio, and television were also disruptive technologies that were framed as such during their times. To some extent, contemporary debates over the control of the Internet, issues of access, privacy, and freedom of expression, are reminiscent of the discourse produced on these older technologies. Our hope is that through the lens of history, contemporary issues and challenges surrounding community networks may benefit from new insights and appear in clearer terms, and so do the adequate course of actions to deal with some pressing issues faced by today's alternets. Approached from a multidisciplinary perspective, the series of eight case studies (three fromthe community telephone networks of the late 19th and early 20th century, three from the Free Radio movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and two among the first generation of community networks providing Internet access in the 1990s)benefited from different literature and fields of research. More specifically, our contribution takes place at the intersection of five different fields of inquiry and proposes a specific contribution to each of these fields. First, our approach inherits from the historical sociology of social movements. Conceptualizing alternative networks as social movements, we seek to study the mutations over time of these movements and their complex co-shaping by technologies, law, politics, and culture. Second, this report makes an original contribution to the field of media history. To this end, we explore the history, still largely to be written, of the struggles over new media technologies and of forgotten media practices. Third, this report informs the political history of the Internet. Often, when we turn to history to inform contemporary debates and mobilizations around Internet politics, we find single-sided narratives that have achieved iconic status, studies focusing on a handful of over-quoted contentious episodes and generally over-representing North America, or scattered accounts that have so far escaped the notice of Internet researchers. Fourth, our perspective inherits from the history and the governance of the commons. Looking at the enclosure of past similar communication technologies, we seek to draw lessons for contemporary alternets.Fifth, our approach inherits from works coming from the field of science and technology studies (STS). We are specifically interested in exploring the so-called “phases of interpretive flexibility” during which different groups are adopting competing technological designs and practices. The History of Alternative Telephone Networks in the United States, Sweden, and France (Chapter 2) revisits the early development of the telephone industry. The three case studies focuses on less-known actors that shaped the early development of telephone networks: independent companies in the American Midwest, cooperatives in Sweden, and local governments and local business communities in France. Our analysis focuses on issues central to netCommons such as the control, management, and organization of alternative networks, the regulation of telecommunications, and the relationship between mainstream and alternative networks.As a conclusion, we discuss some the more striking similarities and differences in the early development of the telephone in the U.S., Sweden, and France. First, it is important to insist on the successes of non-state actors in the development of the telephone, as they significantly contributed to shape the industry. Second, we reflect on the role played by patent and patent law over the development of the telephone industry. In places where Bell didn’t file for patent – and Sweden is a telling example – many different actors contributed to develop the industry and to appropriate the new technology. Third, we turn to the central dilemma faced by U.S. independents and Swedish coops: Should they interconnect their networks with other? Under which conditions? Our cases studies show that the tension between the advantage of interconnection and the “localness” of governance is an enduring one. Fourth, we locate the different models employed to develop the telephone industry within the national histories of the telegraph. We argue that new technologies such as the telephone tend to be implemented by using existing models of technological implementation and governance. Chapter 3 on the History of Alternative Radio Networks revisits three different articulations of alternative radio: American community radios, British pirate radios, and French free radios. As a conclusion, we discuss some of transversal logics and some of the more striking differences in the development of alternative radio networks in the U.S., Great Britain, and France. First, it is important to insist on the diversity of the alternative phenomenon. If our mapping remains partial, it shows, among other things some interesting core trends concerning the repressive strategies employed by authorities. State monopolies over radio, in France and Great Britain, reacted to pirate radios in similar ways. In both cases, episodes of repression and quick legal actions alternated with tolerance and less assertive actions were observed. Public opinion, in all three cases, seems to have shaped the course of actions for public policy. Second, we focus on the managing of radio airwaves as commons. While the airwaves are often said to be commons by international and national regulatory agencies, they are often poorly managed as commons.Notwithstanding all discourses about broadcast as commons, the principle that those affected by rules should be able to modify the rules had not been enforced. The last series of case studies (Chapter 4 ) gets even closer to the actual topic of netCommons by looking at the first generation of community networks which appeared in the 1990s. Highlighting the change of technical paradigm brought about by the Internet and revolutionary tones that it entailed, we first consider the case of the French Data Network (FDN). Founded in 1992, the French community network was the first Internet access provider opened to the general public. The case study describes how FDN navigated the regulatory and technical changes in the Internet governance at the EU and French levels. These changes led FDN to increasingly intervene on political issues and to create a network of CNs, Fédération FDN. We then turn to, a British movement tied to the London countercultural scene which appeared in 1999 and took advantage of the apparition of WiFi protocols as a way to subvert incumbent telecom operators’ hold on last-mile networks and promote a grassroots and locally-grounded approach of building and managing networks.We address what by now should be recurring themes, namely the diversity of motivations and pricing models, the issue of geographic scope with the challenge of scaling from the local to the global, and finally the importance of political advocacy as a core component of the sustainability of CNs. As a general conclusion to this report, we propose to develop general insights that can inform contemporary debates on alternets by drawing parallels between our eight historical case studies and the issues faced by today’s CNs. The main challenges that alternets face are the articulation of local community needs with global connectivity, the development of capacities aimed at influencing the law and technology, the creation of appropriate resources in order to resist co-optation. All of these lead to the single most important lesson, that is the need to build collective cohesion and develop shared capacities for political organization and mobilization. Our case studies show that law and technology are the “master regulators” of alternets. Consequently,CNs should organize to establish reflexive strategies than can help them influence technological and legal developments.