Three questions to Nate Talbot, Director of the Detroit Blockchain Center (DBC)

*This interview first appeared in our April newsletter in French. 


1. First, can you tell us about the challenges of internet coverage in the United States, and the role of the Detroit Blockchain Center in addressing these challenges? The United States is the world’s largest economy, so we often imagine that all Americans have access to the internet and the best technologies. Yet, according to the OECD, in 2017, only 78% of the population reported having internet access.

The largest challenge of internet coverage in the U.S. is equitable access. Through multiple laws passed throughout many of the states here, creating an entity to provide internet service requires an exclusive membership. This is by existing telecommunication companies lobbying state lawmakers to pass restrictive laws on competition. (Examples of these laws can be found at the PEW Research center here.) The impact of these laws results is limited service options for most Americans, which on average is 1-3 residential providers in any given area. This limited choice not only allows ISP’s to provide the bare minimum quality of services for extraordinarily high prices (especially compared to comparable services in similarly economically positioned countries), but limits the profitability for an ISP to build or update its network in low-income neighborhoods and cities, and « Last Mile » rural areas of a state that contain low population densities.

In short, this leaves millions of Americans, with either very low quality internet service (10Mbs if they’re lucky), or no internet service at all (these households often depend on cell phone internet, but are then charged high rates for data usage). Detroit Blockchain Center (DBC) views this as a human rights issue. Twenty years ago, access to the internet was mostly a recreational endeavor. Today it is an essential good. DBC believes mesh-networks are an answer to this. By allowing a community to share high-quality internet services amongst themselves, not only does the average quality of service go up, price-per-user for that access goes down.

An additional benefit to using a mesh network in today’s world is privacy. Mesh networks, by nature act as a type of Virtual Private Network (VPN). And with many corporations and governments pushing the limits on individual privacy and data rights, communities using these networks build in an extra layer of security that keep those privacy rights secured.


2. The DBC is creating a community run mesh network. Can you tell us about this initiative, and about the role of blockchain technology in the system? 

The difference between DBC’s mesh network and most other mesh networks is the addition of using blockchain technology provided by Althea for payments. Most mesh networks depend on donations, grants, and other altruistic means to support themselves. Or the organizers have to take on extraneous account keeping to handle billing, collections, and other requirements to sustain the network. Using cryptocurrencies and « smart-contracts » within a blockchain network allows users to simply load funds into their router, similar to loading a gift-card with new funds, and let each participants router software handle all payments and collections. This greatly reduces the overhead needed by the organizers for accurate accounting, and by using blockchain technology, the payment mechanism is transparent, censorship-resistant, and doesn’t require the need to depend on outside funding to maintain the network.

Further, people who are part of the network can choose to help grow the network by allowing their neighbors to gain access by securely and privately acting as a relay to the internet. The payments made by each person accessing the internet in the network get spread throughout those relaying the internet signal to the main access point. This means participants helping spread the mesh network get paid for doing little more than helping a neighbor gain access. While most won’t earn enough to retire, as a network grows, these users may earn the same or slightly more than the spend each month for their own access, allowing them to further reduce their internet bill, potentially even gaining free access for themselves.

While this approach can be used by anyone interested in a better approach to internet, the biggest beneficiaries are those discussed earlier in rural areas and low-income areas. They are no longer restricted by limited choice and high-rates, and are able to gain access to the basic functions many communities now take for granted, like access to education.


3. With Covid-19, we are living in an unprecedented situation that raises a number of questions about the use of digital technology. How do you view this situation? How are you pursuing your activities in this context?

As we see now with the impact of Covid-19, a family’s livelihood depends on high-quality access to the internet. Employees are forced to work from home, and participate in live video-stream meetings to keep their jobs, students are asked to continue their education using online curriculums, people with non life-threatening health conditions are asked to use tele-medicine services. Banking, filing for unemployment, paying bills, and even shopping now all require a person to have access to the internet. Prior to this global crisis, many people viewed access to internet service as a problem exclusively for poor or developing nations, not an issue a country like America really has. However, now forced to service those here and in other industrialized nations, we are hoping more people see that « just use the local coffee shop or McDonald’s » is not a realistic approach, and the need for high-quality internet is not just about accessing social media or Netflix.

Due to many societies pushing so many basic needs to online services, and requiring people to use those services online or face exclusion (we consider forcing people to wait in crowded lines during a pandemic, or use under-staffed phone lines that take hours for an answer, if connected at all, excluding factors), access to internet should be considered a basic human right along side access to clean water and electricity.

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