Montreal, July 15, 2005 • No 156




Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.




by Harry Valentine


          When two people speak to each other while being in close proximity, the air molecules between them carry the sound of their voices as sound waves. If the two people are neighbours living on large properties in a rural setting, they could speak to each other while standing on each side of their mutual property line. They are merely exercising their constitutional rights to freedom of association and freedom of speech that are enshrined in Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. During periods of inclement weather, the two neighbours could use technology to enable them to speak to each other across their property line.


          One crude communications device involves a taut wire pulled between two metal containers which would function as both speaker and microphone. The taut wire performs the same function as air molecules in that it will transmit sound without need for electric power, except that it will do so over a greater distance than air molecules. While the two neighbours may still be exercising their constitutional right to freedom of speech and of association by using such a device, they could also be held in violation of Canada's Radiocommunications Act that forbids them from connecting a private communications wire across a property line.

          The two neighbours could avoid run-ins with state authorities if they transmitted messages along a different medium. If the same copper pipe carries water to both properties, it could be used as medium to transmit sound. Copper and water are superior sound conductors than air molecules. Small scale sonar technology could be adapted to transmit communication signals along the copper pipe. Alternatively, telecommunications signals could be transmitted electrically between the two properties using the copper pipe and a metal fence. Another communication method would involve beams of concentrated light being aimed at lenses or small light-sensitive panels located on each property. Laser light beams can transmit communicate signals through the air for up to several kilometers.

Restrictions on communications

          Canada's telecommunications law indirectly mandates government bureaucrats to restrict citizens' use of technology that would otherwise extend their ability to speak and associate with other people. The prohibition on connecting communication wires across property lines may have been intended to protect the commercial interest of the telephone monopoly. This phone system in storm-affected regions has often been disrupted after poles carrying telephone lines toppled over. During such emergencies, telecommunication lines that private citizens would connect across their property lines would still be functioning, enabling them to obtain help. When the state forbids property owners from connecting private communication wires across their property lines, it restricts their constitutional rights to freedom of speech, their freedom of association and indirectly compromises the constitutional right to life for some citizens who may need help during an emergency.

          In an environment free from such a prohibition, private communication wires voluntarily connected across property lines could evolve into neighbourhood or community communication networks. The small size of such networks could discourage system abuse due to the ease with which abusers could be traced and identified. By being independent of the main telephone system, such networks may be immune from attacks. A multitude of such local independent communication networks could enable neighbourhoods and communities to remain connected during emergencies and crises. However, state officials would rather close down any such neighbourhood networks for the purpose of protecting the commercial interest of the major telecommunications providers and their more vulnerable systems.

"Canada's telecommunications law indirectly mandates government bureaucrats to restrict citizens' use of technology that would otherwise extend their ability to speak and associate with other people."

          Larger scale wires connected across property lines could carry both electric power and communication signals. Advancing technology enables more citizens to produce their own electricity on their own property from solar energy, wind, and even low-grade geothermal energy. The prolonged ice storm that engulfed Eastern Canada in early 1998 destroyed long-distance power transmission lines and disrupted power to a large population. The few citizens who generated their own on-site, off-grid electric power were virtually unaffected. During that storm, some areas had both power lines as well as telephone lines go down, losing both electricity and telephone services.

          At the present day, power outages still occur in many rural areas and even in built-up areas. Polls that carry electric power lines and telephone lines are still taken down by wind storms and ice storms. Citizens able to generate electric power on their own property could assist their neighbours by connecting a wire across a property line, except that government regulations prevent them from doing so by forbidding private power lines from being connected across property lines. The power sent across the property line could operate an ailing neighbour's air conditioner during a summer heat wave; perhaps prolong a neighbour's life. When power is disrupted during winter, a small amount of electric power from a neighbour's home-generated electric power supply is all that is needed to operate a home natural gas heating system. By forbidding citizens from connecting private power lines across property lines, state regulations may actually infringe on some citizens' constitutional right to life.

Protection against attack

          Concerns have been raised in Canada and the USA about the vulnerability of the long-distance power grid to attack. Computer hackers have already infiltrated government and power station computers, indicating that the power grid could be vulnerable to a cyber attack. Government regulations that forbid the connection of private power lines across property lines play right into the hands of parties that aim to attack the power grid. Such regulations would maximize the damage that an attack on the power grid could inflict on the nation's economy. However, communities could still function if a proliferation of unregulated private micro, mini and small electric power stations were allowed to exist and operate independently of the grid. Such power installations could continue to generate power after an attack to the long-distance power grid. The private wires that cross over the property lines could continue to carry power and telecommunications.

          Communities and neighbourhoods that can access unregulated off-grid power would continue to function after a disruption to the grid or to the telecommunications system. However, one group of state officials strongly opposes large-scale off-grid power generation and private wires being connected across property lines. Another group of officials behaves in ways that indirectly restrict freedom of speech and freedom of association, by endeavouring to control the technology that people could use to speak and associate with each other. A strong constitutional challenge to the state's prohibition against wires across property lines may ultimately be required to give citizens the freedom to voluntarily connect wires across their property lines, not as a matter of a government favour, but an extension of a constitutional right. If successful, such a challenge could ensure that neighbourhoods and communities will have the means to remain functional during emergencies such as power system and telecommunications system disruptions.