In a press conference about Iran last week, a reporter asked US Press Secretary Robert Gibbs if the US couldn’t do an end run around Iranian censorship and use its satellites to ‘beam down’ broadband data connections to the Iranian people.
The question as asked comes across as remarkably naive to us geeks. We make it our business to know the difference between the logical (soft) network and the physical (hard) network.
A tension exists between the inherently democratic design of the myriad end-to-end connections that compose the Internet and the centralised conformation of the physical networks themselves. Briefly, the ‘soft’ elements of the network (the software we run on our computers and the protocols they follow) are completely agnostic about how the data they share actually get from one point to another.
On the other hand, the ‘hard’ elements (international satellite links, long-distance cables and the connection between your home and your ISP) are all about how the data moves. Controlling the data flow is their very essence.
From a ‘hard’ network point of view, this idea of ‘beaming down broadband to an entire population’ is little more than a pipe dream. The thing is, it’s pretty easy to receive a signal from a satellite. Sending an answer back is another matter entirely. That requires some pretty sophisticated equipment.
This led a number of geeks to discard the question entirely and to laugh more than a little at the naiveté of the reporter who posed it.
I’m not so sure we should cast it aside it so quickly.