Gig-E In the Average Broadband Home

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When the opening conference presentation is titled "Innovative Transition Strategy for Build-out of the GEF," you just know that you're in for a thrill-a-minute event.

It helps — sort of — if you recognize the "GEF" acronym as "Gigabit Ethernet over Fiber."

Yet the recent Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA's Washington Workshop, held to develop a "U.S. National Policy for Accelerating Broadband Deployment," turned out to be a zesty combination of geek-speak and serious foresight about what it takes to bring broadband home — from the guys who will design and build it.

Coincidentally, these insights were promulgated just a few days before the appearance of a completely separate — but intrinsically connected — broadband-usage research report from the Pew Internet and American Life Center.

The latest Pew study exposes what early customers are doing with their high-speed connections. Pew drew data from 507 broadband customers in its database, plus additional users who submitted their experiences through the project's Web site.

Last week's deluge of broadband studies also included missives from Women Impacting Public Policy, which focused on the use of broadband in small business, and from SeniorNet, which detailed older Americans' use of broadband for delivery of health-care services, life-long learning and independent living.

These two independent research reports were fully funded in part by Verizon Communications — another reminder that the phone industry still has multiple motives in steering the broadband agenda.

Collectively, these studies present useful ideas on what broadband audiences want. But first there's that important matter of expanding the reach of broadband.

That's where that IEEE seminar plays a role.

NEUTRAL DEPLOYER

The "innovative strategy" suggested in the keynote address proposed the development of a Gigabit Ethernet over Fiber structure that would set up a "neutral, not-for-profit entity [to] deploy and own the conduit to each end-user in a region."

This organization would also own the Optimal Fiber Aggregation Point (OFAP), a physical facility in which the conduit terminates, and to which services are made available.

Multiple service providers would connect to the OFAP and compete for selection by end-users, according to this particular vision.

Cornell University professor Alan McAdams, and chair of the IEEE-USA Committee on Communications and Information Policy, acknowledged that such a scenario is an "alternative future [that] … might happen, not a proposal for what should happen or a forecast of what will happen."

But he emphasizes that GEF — which now finds a home largely (and almost only) in the first meters of broadband networks — "deserves visibility among the various technological options."

GEF: SIMPLE CHOICE

McAdams contends GEF is a simple network that offers "an order of magnitude great bandwidth, with costs lower than today's traditional telco and cable technologies."

And home computers are already widely equipped with Ethernet cards.

As McAdams and other speakers hashed over broadband technology concepts, their passion was vivid. The IEEE Technology Task Group (mostly academics and consulting engineers) in many ways mirrors the mindset of the Internet 2 project team and several Silicon Valley consortia, which have their eyes on a 100 megabit-per-second nationwide infrastructure.

You could feel the freeze when the IEEE group sneered at the Federal Communications Commission's definition of "broadband" as anything above 200 kilobits per second.

Significantly, this particular workshop was aimed at getting the message about high-speed options to policy-makers. FCC, Capitol Hill, White House and other regulatory wonks were on hand to hear the engineering rationales. For what it's worth, only a handful of cable and telephone company representatives were in the mix – at least at this point.

What made the geek-fest so impressive was how the engineers' techno-visions meshed with the experiences of broadband consumers, as identified in the Pew study and others. Though cable (and even telephone-industry) broadband promoters dote on video-on-demand (which means "movies-on-demand" to most vendors), as well as other entertainment-oriented services, the latest slew of studies points toward other popular applications

SHARING CONTENT

The early adopters want to create and share content, suggesting that symmetrical two-way capacity should play a bigger role in the new architecture.

The first wave of broadband customers, according to Pew, handles twice as many tasks as dial-up users. They telecommute. They trade music files extensively. The "broadband elite," as Pew calls the heaviest users, performs 10 or more online activities per day, which underscores how ingrained broadband functionality is in their lives.

The most impressive finding, at this relatively early stage, is the immersive value of the broadband connection. This represents the kind of community-building that cable franchisees touted for decades: High-speed connections actually appear to encourage customers — or at least today's early adopters — to contribute to the experience and actively participate in the medium.

Equally significant, 37 percent of broadband users in the Pew study said they spend less time watching TV, while 31 percent said they don't shop in stores as much as they had. Home networking's role is also substantiated: Pew found that about 55 percent of broadband homes have already installed home networks.

Maybe it means bringing Gigabit Ethernet into (or nearer to) every home. It certainly means more than wishful thinking that studio-produced shows will alone drive the broadband expansion.

Now that's worth looking into.

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