Seminar on the broadband Internet (COMN 4520)


COMN 4520 – FW 2016-17


Course Description

This course falls under the Critical Technology stream in the Dept of Communication Studies. It provides a grounding in digital communications technologies, especially those associated with the global public Internet. We look in an interdisciplinary way at how technology interacts with public policy and regulation, business models, and consumer behaviors.

The methodological approach we take is evidence-based. We consider factual and quasi-factual information from many sources, much of it presented as numerical data from network design specifications, regulatory decisions, consumer surveys, market forecasts and the like. The goal is to develop a critical framework for assessing the competing claims of actors in the communications industry, including incumbent ISPs, regulators and public interest advocacy groups. The course follows current industry events closely.


They’re called “required” readings because all students are required to read them – and to do so by the stipulated deadline. In order to encourage timely coverage of the core materials, students keep an official record of their reading and discussion notes, and these are vetted regularly by the instructor (the class notebook counts for 20% of the final grade). Most of the required readings are available online in HTML or as pdf downloads.

We supplement the core readings with contextual material drawn from online sources, including Benton’s Communications-related Headlines, which requires a free subscription, as well as a number of blogs and news sites, both Canadian and American. 

Course downloads

  • Full syllabus – updated Nov 01 – v.1.4 (pdf)
  • Stylesheet (pdf) — good layout (pdf)
  • Agreement (pdf) — Benchmark quiz (pdf)
  • Course slidedecks (often edited): Sept 13 (#1-pdf) — Sept 20 (#2-pdf)
    • Sept 27 (#3-pdf) — Oct 4 (#4-pdf) — Oct 18 (#6-pdf) — Oct 25 (#7-pdf)
    • Nov 1 (#8-pdf) — Nov 8 (#9-pdf) — Nov 15 (#10-pdf) — Nov 22 (#11-pdf)
    • Jan 10 (#13-pdf) — Jan 24 (#15-pdf)


Weekly Outline

Tue Sept 13 (#1) – Orientation: course structure, grading scheme, student responsibilities

A. Creative destruction: from old to new media (2)

Tue Sept 20 (#2) – The Internet vs TV (1)

Reading (R1): Pew Research Center, Home Broadband 2015 (Dec 2015: pdf)

Tue Sept 27 (#3) – The Internet vs TV in Canada (2)

Reading (R2): CRTC, Broadcasting Regulatory Policy CRTC 2009-329 (Review of broadcasting in new media, June 2009) – Concurring Opinion of Comm. Denton

B. How the Internet works (5)

Tue Oct 4 (#4) – The Internet as a dumb transmission platform (1)

Reading (R3): David Isenberg (1997), “Rise of the Stupid Network

Tue Oct 11 (#5) – Packet-switched networks and the TCP/IP protocol suite (2) vint-cerf-bob-kahn

Reading (R4) – Severance videos #1-2-3 (2012) – Overview (25 min), Link layer (10 min), Internetwork layer (38 min) – Dropbox

Tue Oct 18 (#6) – Packet-switched networks and the TCP/IP protocol suite (3)

Reading (R5) – Severance videos #4-5-6 (2012) – Transport layer (15 min), Security layer (23 min), Application layer (26 min) – Dropbox

Tue Oct 25 (#7) – Some Internet history (4)

Reading (R6) – Severance videos – History through Netscape (12 min) – Dropbox

Reading (R7) – Jack Goldsmith & Tim Wu, Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World, “The God of the Internet” (2006: pdf)

Tue Nov 1 (#8) – TCP/IP vs OSI: the Nethead governance model (5)

Reading (R8): Andrew Russell, ‘Rough Consensus and Running Code’ and the Internet-OSI Standards War (2006: pdf)


C. The last mile and tier-1 networks (2)

Tue Nov 8 (#9) – Broadband, you and your ISP (1) – changed

Reading (R9a) – Aaron Wenner, Canadian Techlaw Blog (New tariffs on the horizon after CRTC revamps rate-setting process for wholesale broadband Internet services

Reading (R9b) – CRTC, Telecom Order CRTC 2016-396. Tariff notice applications concerning aggregated wholesale high-speed access services (Oct 6, 2016: pdf)

Tue Nov 15 (#10) – Backbones, peering and transit (2)

Reading (R10) – Dyn Research Report, A Baker’s Dozen: 2015 Edition (April 2016: pdf)

D. Algorithms: the Internet’s secret sauce (2)

Tue Nov 22 (#11) – Algorithm basics alkhwarizmi-2

Reading (R11 ) – Khan Academy, Introduction to Algorithms

Tue Nov 29 (#12) – Technical benefits, social costs

Reading (R12 ) – Algorithms and Accountability Conference (excerpts TBD) – With special guest discussant Salman Pourmajidi

December break 

Tue Jan 10 (#13) – Your brain on the Internet

Reading (R13 ) – Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” – The Atlantic Monthly (2008: pdf)

E. The Internet of Things (2)

Tue Jan 17 (#14) – The IoT as a business opportunity (1)

Reading (R14) – Wikipedia, Internet of Things

Reading (R15) – ITAC, The Internet of Things: Time for a National Discourse (Aug 2015: pdf)


Tue Jan 24 (#15) – The IoT as bad news (2)

Reading (R16) – D.E., “The Internet in 2025: the Internet/Cloud of Things,” blog post (Feb 28, 2014)

Reading (R17) – Bruce Schneier, “The Internet of Things Will Turn Large-Scale Hacks into Real World Disasters,” Motherboard Vice (July 2016)

F. Security and privacy (4)

Tue Jan 31 (#16) – Online security: it’s a hackable world (1)

Reading (R18) – The Shodan search engine website: map your online exposure


Tue Feb 7 (#17) – Online security: the CVE dilemma (2)

Reading (R19) – OTI, Bugs in the System: A Primer on the Software Vulnerability Ecosystem and its Policy Implications (July 2016: pdf)

Tue Feb 14 (#18) – Online security: attitudes vs behaviors (3) – << change >>

Reading (R20) – Pew Research Center, Americans and Cybersecurity (Jan 2017: pdf)

Feb 21 – Reading Week – No Class

Tue Feb 28 (#19) – Online privacy: why it’s time for a personal VPN

Reading (R21) – D.E., It’s 2015: Cancon is the aberration, not VPNs or the Internet, blog post (Jan 14, 2015)


G. Network neutrality (3)

Tue Mar 7 (#20) – This is your life: network neutrality in Canada (1)

Reading TBA

Tue Mar 14 (#21) – Network neutrality in the US (2)

Reading TBA

Tue Mar 21 (#22) – Net neutrality in the EU (3)

Reading – Current stories from Benton Headlines

Tue Mar 28 (#23) – Exam & attendance review, notebook grading, course evals

Tue Apr 4 (#24) In-class final exam – 3 hrs