[ Prev ][ Table of Contents ][ Front Page ][ Talkback ][ FAQ ][ Next ]

"Linux Gazette...making Linux just a little more fun!"

0800-LINUX: Creating a Free Linux-only ISP

By Carlos Betancourt

The Open ISP Project


Free Internet access. It's a sentence we hear everywhere. With the proliferation of ISPs Internet access is getting hot... I mean, cool. Whatever. Prices are going down everyday even more. But there's a limit. We always have to pay the Phone Company for our "free" Internet time. In countries where there is a PSTN Monopoly, usually the end user is abused from the almighty Phone Company. And in countries where local phone calls are free, users always have to pay the ISP. Even if you are OK with that, we all must acknowledge that being Linux users we get marginal support from our ISPs. Yes, there are a lot of Linux-friendly ISPs, but what about the power features, like encrypted PPP sessions, or Serial Load Balance? There's even a new modality: advertisements sponsored ISPs. Just by loading a "bar" which display ads while you use the ISP, you get "free" internet access (phone call charges vary depending on your zone coverage or country). Of course, there is no Linux version of such services, ad even if they existed, would you agree on eating their ads? In this article, I want to begin a discussion of why the Linux community needs a truly zero-cost and feature rich ISP, and how such a project would benefit the entire Linux community, our own countries, and the IT world in general. To reach this goals, I believe the zero-cost ISP project should be Linux-Only oriented. Keep on reading, and I'll expose why.

There have been efforts all around the world to bring Internet access costs down, namely "Plain rates"; some have partially succeeded, some others not. Why? Because THEY DON'T HAVE THE COMMUNITY SUPPORT/UNITY WE HAVE.

1. Why Linux needs a zero-cost ISP

The need is out there... here is what I believe a zero-cost ISP can do for Linux and for Nations:

1.1. Nurture the new Linux minds: as an intelligent species, we nurture the youth to become the next generation of leaders and supporters of our society. If we provide the means for our kids and teenagers to learn and develop themselves we will be a successful society in the long run. Professional Soccer/Baseball clubs have early leagues where kids a grown up enhancing their skills. Those who invest in the young ones are the ones who survive. I'm not worried about Linux survival, but it's certain that by now we are still a minority. And in this new IT era, we need the people to support all the infrastructure we are building today, ten years from now, even less. Who in the family are the ones with less priority to use Internet, the computer or the Phone? Kids. As simple as that. If you pay the phone by the minute, most parents wouldn't like their kids spend hours online. And if parents use the computer regularly, the kids must get away from it. And most parents consider a computer a too expensive toy to buy a new one for the kids. If we, as a community, nourish our youth, we are going to have an inevitable success. Many people discuss, these days, about winning the desktop war. Give kids Linux and we'll se five years from now.

1.2. Bring Enlightenment: how to expand our user base: people use what they are given to use. If you buy a new computer, which OS will you get by default? I know this story is ending, with recent support from Hardware integrators, or, for instance, the deal between Corel and PC Chips. OK, from now on people will have a choice, although not so soon. We as a community must develop some strategy to attract people to our OS. How? Give them free, I mean _free_, Internet access. We have to give people a reason to use Linux. We have lots of ISPs around, each one trying to have new customers using different strategies and features. They distribute Windows-only setup CD-ROMs to ease the subscription process. And most of them claim "Free Internet Access". What it really is is a half-truth. You still have to pay the phone call. There are some others that give you one "free month", and then they charge you for a maximum amount of time online per month, being the phone call free. Ok. But what they don't tell you, is that you pay the phone calls during this "free month". I just feel sick with all those half-truths, or should I call them "half-lies"? Isn't a half-lie a lie anyway? Now, imagine, we provide a truly free and unlimited (this point we have to discuss. Remember, I'm just trying to build a discussion around this subject) Internet access to anyone who wants, only if they use Linux. I mean, like M$-Chap (fortunately pppd can deal with that), we can develop some Linux-Chap, but I don't think it's ethical; or is it? In case it's not ethical, maybe accepting only ppp-encryption or bsd/slhc compression capable clients. We have to address all this technical details in a forum. But the main idea is: "Use Linux, and you'll have free unlimited Internet access. Just by using it on your computer". We already have everything to fill the needs of end users: Web Browsers, Office Suites, Drawing tools, etc., and more is coming.

1.3. More bugs hunted - more eyes on the source code: if we bring more people to Linux, we'll get more people interested on studying it's internals, learning to program, developing programs. I know not everyone, but if we get just one out of a thousand, and we get some more millions of new users, it looks pretty sexy, eh? And if we give them a way to download more source core or binaries per unit of time, in the long run we'll have more developers and/or bug reports. Just by reporting bugs, or what they dislike/need from our OS, evolution is going to accelerate. And remember, we won't have Linus or Alan or thousands others forever (what a sad life without them). We need to plant the seed for the new generations to come. By giving users a free High Quality OS, and free Internet access, don't you think that someday they will want to give something back to the community? That's how Linux works: we all are trying to give something back to the community. Those of you reading these lines, aren't you trying the same everyday? That's why we have copy parties, mailing lists, newsgroups, etc. We are a gift community and a bazaar community.

1.4. Provide our community with a unified local repository of software - faster downloads: in many countries there are not unified national backbones. Academical networks and commercial ones have not a common backbone, or are in the process of doing so. Around the world we have hundreds of mirrors of Linux repositories, but when it comes to a single country, maybe the user and the mirror and in different networks, thus having slow downloads, although the mirror is in the same country. I don't pretend to abolish existing mirrors, but to provide by the zero-cost ISP project a nation-wide ISP with all the necessary Linux resources. People won't _have_ to use it, it's just a choice, and a fast choice. The 0800-Linux ISP must be nationwide to achieve this goal. Besides, the PPP link can be established with extra compression (not just IP headers), thus giving a phenomenal throughoutput. And let's add to this the chance to have two phone links using Serial Load Balance (an option in the kernel). Should this ISP include ISDN/xDSL service? In the beginning maybe not, due to increased costs, but it's just a matter of counting the demand for it. It's another issue to discuss in this project.
And last but not least: faster downloads mean efficiency -then economy- to the Open ISP's budget!

1.5. Give privacy to people: what is your ISP doing with your data? And your mail? Do you think your actual ISP protects your privacy? I don't know for sure, but I don't think so. What about Massive Web Tracking Via ISPs, with technologies as Predictive Networks? Have you ever heard of the Echelon Project? "The big brother is watching you", remember? The 0800-Linux ISP project can help us reach a decent level of privacy. How? With encrypted PPP links, educating our users to use PGP/GPG, giving free web mail a la or through SSL. It's a very simple way to encourage users to user strong encryption. Which well-known free web mail server provides users with strong encryption? Remember what happened in Hotmail some time ago, when crackers published techniques/programs to read any account's mail? If we support strong encryption this can't happen again. I also think of, let's say, an encrypted /home file system. We can think endlessly of new applications. Well, let's not forget all this is subject to government permission. There are new project laws in UK that will consider illegal denying to give decryption keys to the government, for example.

1.6. Open new business opportunities: with a large user base it's impossible not to mention the new (now not so new) and huge market it will bring. Books, Commercial Software (while we don't have free replacements we have to buy them. Think about games), more Distributions sales, support companies, huge demands for Linux-inside PCs, etc.; everything will grow, exponentially, and even unthinkable new businesses. We are in a new e-conomic era, and Linux is one of the driving forces on it. Look at the success of Linux IPOs. And we are a minority! We just have to pull the trigger. The results will overwhelm us.

1.7. Fill the demands in the IT world: lots of nations are now making plans to fill the huge demand for IT professionals. It's a problem of all developed and developing countries. The projections for IT workers shortage for the years to come is alarming. I think the Open-ISP project can play a major role in reversing this proccess: it will bring the free software community spirit to thousands of new individuals, stimulating colaborative development and user-to-user support. The more people gets access to computers and Internet, the more skilled the population.

1.8. Allow more nations to involve/profit of e-commerce: most of European nations are worried about the advantage the US has taken in e-commerce. And in the end, the final customer is the one who benefits from competition. But to fill the gap they need the human resources to build and support the infrastructure. The European Union has launched the "eEurope Initiative", to develop the course of action to adquire a competitive edge in ecommerce and new technologies.

2. Creating a zero-cost LINUX ISP

So if a zero-cost Linux ISP can benefit the Linux community, how can we raise the funds to achieve it?

2.1. Existing Linux/Open Source funds: the Open Source Equipment Exchange, the Linux Fund or Open Source Awards, like the Benie Awards by or the EFF Pioneer Awards

2.2. Linux distributors: if we get this project to work, it is certain that the companies behind the Linux distributions are going to benefit. Nowadays, you can see boxed Linux distributions in well-known stores around Europe and South America, whereas just one and a half year ago you couldn't. Now it's easy to find bright and shiny boxes of SuSE, RedHat, Corel and Mandrake, to name a few. The main Linux distributions have showed along all these years a firm and sincere support for a vast range of projects. And they know their success depends on the user base. We just have to develop a strong project and they surely are going to help. If this project comes to life, Linux distributors could advertise "Free Internet" bundled with the product. You just install Linux, and you have free Net Access.

2.3. Linux Publishers: lots of publishing houses are having a business around Linux these days. It's more common to see new Linux books in the shelves at major bookstores. If they donate a little fraction for the sale of each book to the project, then we have more funds. We just have to get more people into the community, and books are going to start flying away from the shelves. It's inevitable. Houses like O'Reilly are well known for its support and sponsorship of projects.

2.4. Other UN*X companies: why did SUN gave StarOffice away for free? If the Linux community succeeds, Un*x will get exposed to the general public and corporations. It will strengthen Un*x acceptance. Un*x vendors will keep alive in the game. Even SGI, which is now embracing Linux instead of IRIX, will win because hardware sales make more sense to them. If Linux in general has support from this companies, the 0800-LINUX project benefits indirectly from that support. Now we have a High Quality Office Suite free to offer to the public, thanks to SUN. Maybe we can become a Sunsite partner, thus receiving hardware from the very SUN.

2.5. Hardware Integrators: if you sell a computer with free Internet access when you buy it, with no more headaches to the end user to set it up, just dialing 0800-LINUX, hey, it's a hell of a good strategy. And if you save users the cost of the OS, prices are going to be even more attractive. Hardware integrators can supply a machine with a free OS, free applications, free Office suite, and FREE Internet access... Again, the more users we attract, the more hardware gets sold. V.A. Systems, Penguin Computing, Compaq, Dell, to name just a few, all of them are in the game. They are just waiting, _waiting_, for demand to supply Linux already installed. They are tired to pay the M$ tax. They can instead, save that money and support this project with just a fraction of that. Whether it's hardware or money, we'll benefit.

2.6. The government: in high developed countries kids have computers at school. They develop their understanding and attraction to computers from early ages. Until now, the beginning of the 21st century, all the countries had access to the same kind of technology and education. Technology was easy and cheap to replicate in every country, even the poorest. And education more or less the same everywhere, with no specialization, or a low tech one. Every country has had, more or less, the same opportunities to develop themselves. Now we enter a new era. The gap between developed nations and developing ones, is everyday larger. It's technology, services, specialization, high tech industries, education and the Internet the turning points in this new era. And I'm not saying anything new. The more people with access to technology, information, services, and communications the wealthier the country becomes. And more developed, in general terms. Where do you think is Linus from? Finland; Cox? UK; Stallman? US. I know you see the path. As a non-profit project, the zero-cost Linux ISP, the government can concede tax deductions to the funds private companies and/or individuals give to the project. Even the same government could help fund the project, due to the importance of the results. It's not just Linux; it's the enlightening of the population by means of Linux, and the long run results it is going to bring.

2.7. United Nations: (please help me on this)

2.8. End Users donations: we can't impose our users to pay a fee for the Internet access; if we do, we'll just become YAISP (Yet Another ISP), and will add another level of complexity to the project (manage subscriptions, payment, etc.). Besides, the goal in our project is to provide an easy way for users to setup their Internet access: they just dial 0800-LINUX after installing Linux or buying a brand new computer. Even the distributions can have a pre-setup out of the box with a list of countries were the 0800-LINUX project is working. So users just will be one click away the 'Net. In this project we have to develop all the policies and framework of the ISP, so it will be the same all around the world. Distributions can ship already set up. Therefore, when users want to give back to the community, they just can donate hardware and/or funds to the project. Just with a tiny fraction of what they pay annually to their respective ISPs and/or Phone MonopoLIES it will be enough.

Moving Forward

If you agree that a zero-cost Linux-only ISP can be beneficial for the growth of Linux, how do we as a community address the points I made above about creating such a project? I think that as a first step we should create a mailing-list and run a poll to know the percentage of the Linux users in our country that use dial-up Internet access.

Is a Linux-only free ISP project even possible? The first thing one could think when reading about this project is that it is going to cost too much money. OK. You have a point. But think it this way: if we raise the necessary money to have a 0800-LINUX ISP in our country, do you think it is worth it? We have plenty of choices, and reasons, to find funds.

We have to find all these answers together. This is a project that must be born inside the community, not imposed from the outside. After we find consensus, we must prepare a complete proposal to all the Linux related companies, to know how much funding we can get.

And for the technical details of the ISP we could create an "Engineering Task Force". Please, email me at if you believe in the plausibility of this project and would like to participate.

Hotmail Cracked Badly

UK Decryption Law Pushed Through

Surveillance bill under fire

'Echelon Study' Released by European Parliament

Echelon Watch

Echelon is Listening to You

Hotmail Hole Exposes Users to Security Exploits


March 24th:
EU looks to e-job bonanza
EU to Push Growth in Innovation, Technology

Copyright © 2000, Carlos Betancourt
Published in Issue 54 of Linux Gazette, June 2000

[ Prev ][ Table of Contents ][ Front Page ][ Talkback ][ FAQ ][ Next ]