Keeping the internet an open entity will depend largely on users' abilities to set up ad hoc networks among themselves, instead of large telecommunications companies controlling the infrastructure and therefore the bits that travel across it, according to some members of the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Laboratory.

Speaking at a panel discussion hosted by the Congressional Internet Caucus in the US, a pair of Media Laboratory members shared their vision of the future of telecommunications.

"What's going on [in telecommunications] isn't just that phone companies have taken on too much debt," said Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Laboratory. There are changes under way that could mean the existing model of large telcos controlling the nation's networks "may not bounce back with the rest of the market because we're going to use telecommunications differently", he said.

With the emergence of new WLAN (wireless local area network) technologies, such as IEEE 802.11 that lets users with the right equipment pass data back and forth across a short distance without requiring physical connections, device manufacturers that include such technology in their products are enabling users to create networks on their own.

"Telecommunications [companies] are searching for the next generation [of services]; meanwhile, the computer industry is doing something viral on the side," Negroponte said. Eventually, enough users will set up wireless LANs to create a web of interconnected systems that will be "a seamless broadband network built by the people, for the people", he said.

However, before that can happen, governments must free up more spectrum for use by such unlicensed devices, Negroponte said.

The development of interconnected WLANs is happening in much the same way as the internet grew in its early days, when no one entity was in control, said Andrew Lippman, associate director of the MIT Media Laboratory. Today, telcos that set up broadband networks have too much control because all the data flowing out of one user's PC goes to a central spot controlled by the carrier before it's delivered to the intended recipient, he said.

Devices equipped for WLAN communication should be allowed to flourish so that they can let users communicate directly with each other, Lippman said. "You can build a network where the capacity goes up with the number of nodes built into it. Every one of us can become an ad hoc [communications] tower," he said.

Regulators should approach spectrum allocation in the same way in which laws governing the use of the ocean were developed, Lippman added. "Anyone can use it, but you have to follow a few rules," he said.