Billions of individuals around the world access the internet each and every day through internet service providers (ISPs). These ISPs have created partnerships and developed the infrastructure to power access to the internet around the world.
To access the internet, regardless of what equipment an individual may have, it requires a connection through an ISP. The ISP provides the necessary connectivity and bandwidth in which to interact with the internet. Without it, even a fully decentralized Web3 internet would be inaccessible.
How Do ISPs Work?
At a fundamental level, ISPs serve as major data movers by offering access through different connections (DSL or Dial-up, for instance) that come with different speeds, services, and accessibility.
Some key examples of ISPs include:
All of these providers have one particularly key feature in common – they are massive, centralized entities with considerable power over the internet. This directly coincides with the concentration of cellular accessibility between the giants of AT&T, Verizon, and TMobile.
This is due to the massive barrier to entry that has formulated due to the required infrastructure necessary to create a competitor. Many ISPs have concrete contracts in place with both major data centres (typically run by tech giants like Google or Amazon) and cities themselves to build out infrastructure like fibre optic cable lines.
In fact, there are thousands and thousands of miles of fibre optic cable that transfers data across the world on just the east coast of the United States alone. This centralized infrastructure also has secondary risks such as overload due to damaged infrastructure resulting in a massive amount of rerouted internet and telecommunications traffic.
Hyper-growth in Internet Demand & Technological Development
There are two separate laws famous in the technological development of computing & internet. The first of these is Moore’s Law which states that computing power grows at an annualized rate of 60% or 100x compounded growth over just ten years.
The other side of this coin is Nielsen’s Law which states that internet bandwidth roughly doubles each year, residing in a 57x increase in growth over ten years. However, bandwidth overall grows at a noticeably slower rate.
For example, someone paying more for a bandwidth upgrade will only see improvements up to a certain point. Bandwidth doesn’t just rely on higher-level access but is limited by the speed of centralized ISPs in the upgrading of equipment and necessary infrastructure. Upgrading existing infrastructure for a 50% boost in bandwidth speed can cost upwards of billions of dollars and take considerable time to implement.
Additionally, as the technology improves, there is a higher demand for high-level internet access including a rise in things like streaming. The COVID-19 pandemic coincided with a growth in internet demand of roughly 70%. Per AT&T Labs, internet traffic is approximately doubling each year. When considering the building out of a metaverse, this demand could skyrocket and further outpace the expansion of ISP infrastructure and capabilities for the average user.
Development of Decentralized ISPs
For the metaverse to truly function and remain as decentralized as possible, there must be unrestricted access available to it. This raises the question of how feasible decentralized ISPs could really be.
Distributed internet access has been sought after and researched for some time now. This has led to the development of different concepts, two of which have been highlighted below:
Microgrids for Distributed Internet Data Centers
Part of the systemic centralization issue falls directly on data centres themselves. With centralized ISPs creating strategic partnerships with centralized data storage providers, a decentralized ISP would still have to rely on those very same data centres and thus only partially solves the problem.
There have been multiple proposals to plan and develop a microgrid to power distributed internet data centres. A microgrid is a concept for distributing the power grid itself. It works as a localized energy grid that can function in par or autonomously from the main power grid. These microgrids would have the durability and capacity to host localized data centres, ensuring that the stress of traffic overall on the local system is lower due to the smaller sample size.
Another working concept is that of mesh networks – a way of distributing WiFi connectivity more efficiently. Mesh networks have models that work from the individual household up to entire cities. The network is formed through distributed nodes that are interoperable, meaning that they can communicate to share a wireless connection with each other. This covers larger areas with coverage.
This is a truly wireless distribution of internet connectivity. When considering this concept for smart cities, it would vastly cut down on the necessary infrastructure required to distribute internet access across a city among many thousands of residents. Fewer infrastructure requirements mean all of the following:
- Lower upgrade costs
- More distributed access
- Smaller barrier to entry for new participants
- Less systemic risk due to environmental factors
Wireless mesh networks are projected to have steady growth through 2026 based on a research report released in February 2022.
There are a handful of different cryptocurrency-powered projects that are working on the idea of decentralized ISPs. With bootstrapped crypto-powered funding rounds, it can assist the project in being funded through community building and would also help distribute ownership over the ISP.
One such example is Nexus (NXS). The Nexus Protocol aims to provide decentralized routing services for users to bypass traditional ISPs and is “driven by a security-focused operating system (LX-OS), utilizing the immutability of Nexus to verify its internal states, making it resistant to most known operating system level exploits”. To achieve this, Nexus Protocol aims to establish a robust network built up from a combination of tokenized micro-satellites and ground stations in which to interact with said satellites, similar to Elon Musk’s Starlink (but decentralized).
The micro-satellites are to be launched into low Earth orbit and run the Nexus Protocol operating system. The ground stations are established through phased array antennas, which are “electrically steered and are capable of realizing high gains and mobility“. These antennas may be installed on top of buildings or vehicles, and “connect to transceivers on the 5.8 GHz ISM (Industrial, Scientific, Medical) band, commonly used in Wi-Fi routers”, per the Nexus Protocol website.
The successful launch and implementation of such a technology, should it work appropriately, would take the concept of Starlink and distribute ownership of it throughout Web3. Other examples of decentralized ISP development include Blockstream (Bitcoin) and Althea.
Accessibility to the internet will remain a major challenge for the development of a global, decentralized metaverse and Web3 in general. Censorship through ISPs obviously has some workarounds (take the explosion in popularity of VPNs for example), but a large percentage of the global population lives with at least some restrictions to internet access.
Decentralized internet access puts the power of the internet fully into the hands of the users themselves. While development is sluggish for decentralized ISP technology, concepts and ideas are emerging that have adequate examples of how to potentially do it. Should Web3 and the metaverse ever reach their full adoption and developmental potential, unrestricted access to both is vital.