The Broadband Promise to Planet Earth


The following is an excerpt from the book
Planet Broadband, written by Rouzbeh Yassini. Yassini is also founder and CEO of YAS Broadband Ventures LLC

With a world population projected to swell to 9 billion by 2050, we have no choice but to teach new generations a new alphabet that can be used to replace the resource-taxing habits of our current, post-Industrial Age. Specifically, we can begin to curb our tendency to move things physically, and begin to think of inventive ways to move things digitally.

For example, imagine you've videotaped your child's backyard birthday party. You're anxious to share the day's glory with the child's grandmother, who lives hundreds of miles away. So you purchase a blank videocassette, transfer the contents of your original to it, wrap it up in a padded envelope and send it on a physical journey. This entire, complicated ritual could be replaced by an alternative in which you consume neither the plastic and cardboard housing of a fresh videocassette nor the fuel, labor and wear and tear of its physical delivery. The entire 12-minute recording could appear on your mother's television screen within minutes of its creation, accompanied by your live narration of key sequences.

If only you had the right connections. In this instance, you need a broadband appliance — it could be a broadband modem hooked to a PC, or a set-top device hooked to the TV, or a wholly new contraption, something called a "residential gateway," which serves an in-home network for the PC, the TV, and many of the electronic appliances and gadgets in your home. This sort of communications gateway could snatch your video transmission, send it to your mother's electronic address, alert her that it had arrived and display it on her command at the same time she tuned into your live narration over the speaker.

The example reminds us why a converged broadband network — video, voice and data — is so important. The cobbling together of separate networks is just too cumbersome for the average person to bear. Yes, today it is possible to digitize your 12-minute video and send it via e-mail over a dial-up connection to your mother. If you're lucky, it should take no less than an hour or two to transmit. Of course, your Mom must then possess the technical acumen to download the digital material you have sent her, summon and operate a computer application known as a decompression program, launch a separate program called a media player and, finally, call you via a separate telephone connection to describe the scenes she's viewing over her PC and ask for your commentary.

The idea that we have enough patience and expertise to engage in these varying levels of computer tomfoolery is silly. It should be no more difficult for your mother to watch her granddaughter frolic in the backyard with friends than it is for her to watch the nightly news on over-the-air television.

The only way to achieve this sort of simplicity and ubiquity is to build a network over which the entire range of video, voice and data content can flow.

The replacement of physical manufacturing and distribution with digital replication and distribution is an environmental benefit: less consumption of the planet's resources, less spewing of polluting emissions. But the bigger environmental impact of broadband is related to reducing traffic gridlock that increasingly haunts developed nations. It's about more than just pollution and resource consumption. Traffic increasingly gobbles up the precious resource of time. An eye-opening observation from Harvard University's professor of public policy, Robert Putnam, notes that among the biggest reasons for Americans' decreasing involvement in social groups such as school organizations, political parties and churches is long commutes. For every 10 minutes spent driving to work, Putnam observes, involvement in community affairs drops 10 percent. A report on traffic congestion and commuting by the conservative Washington Family Council agrees with the idea that spending time in traffic erodes traditional values and life quality. "The long-term consequences of traffic reach far beyond simple economics," the report concluded. "It seeps into the foundation of society — people and their families." And of course, there's the persistent fear of consuming more fuel than the earth ultimately has to give.

The dawning days of telecommuting, in fact, were rooted in concerns about energy consumption. It was during the 1970s energy crisis and the U.S. government's embargo on Arab oil when the term "telecommuting" first came into vogue. Prompted by a government mandate to help employees pare their consumption of fuel, an unknown number of business workers toted heavy teletype machines to their homes, plugged them in to phone lines, and attempted to do their jobs.

No doubt cellular phones, e-mail, Web sites, and laptop computers have helped to contribute to the telecommute or telework evolution. So too have changing attitudes among corporations about decentralization, virtual work teams and more permissive management philosophies. But only now do researchers envision a truly remarkable change in the way professional people work. Global broadband connections, wired or wireless, represent the spark that can ignite the real progression in telework. It's the presence, or lack, of broadband connectivity that often spells the difference in whether telework works. "Our employee research has shown that lack of broadband into the home is the top barrier to increased participation," said AT&T's telework guru Robert Allenby. "Lack of high-speed access to the inter/intranet draws workers back into the office for the sake of productivity, in this age of larger and larger computer files and applications such as video conferencing."

But the expansion of broadband availability portends a day when some of the impositions of the industrial age give way. Ironically, we might just end up where we started — with a more natural blend of work life and home life. "It was only with the advent of the manufacturing economy of the Industrial Revolution that workers began leaving their homes in droves each day, assembling together for employment, then returning home," observed Allenby. "Before the industrial revolution, the lines between work and family and education and entertainment were blurry. Everything blended just a little bit, because all activity in an agrarian economy tended to occur around the homesite. Then we drew clear, industrial age lines between everything, and spent time, energy and natural resources moving ourselves back and forth to keep work and family and education separate. Now, as we move into the information age, it seems telework is actually a return to a more organic way of balancing work and family."

Broadband evangelists for years have searched for the elusive "killer application" that may unleash even greater momentum in broadband adoption rates. Maybe the real allure of broadband isn't on-demand music access, streaming videos or e-mail that talks to you. Maybe it's eroding the stress of traffic gridlock that will be the siren song of the new broadband age.

Adapted with permission from Planet Broadband by Rouzbeh Yassini, ©2004, Cisco Press.