How Great Broadband's Going to Be

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I attended three — count 'em, three — broadband seminars in Washington over the past 17 days. Each was laced with high-minded public-policy pronouncements and economic promises about the value and inevitability of high-speed access. Indeed, I was the co-perpetrator of one of these events, aided and abetted by the publisher of this periodical.

Alas, all of these symposia — plus collateral news conferences from advocacy groups such as the Silicon Valley-centric TechNet and the Computer Systems Policy Project — contributed to that mind-numbing process sometimes called "The Leisure of the Theory Class." Lots of smart people talking, talking and talking about the opportunities and benefits of broadband.

Collectively, these speeches reminded me of a favorite all-purpose joke about the woman who was married several times but was still a virgin. In many recitations over the years, I have heard countless variations of the reasons for non-consummation (such as a debilitating auto accident, sexual ambivalence or a preoccupied lawyer).

Though the punchline is always adapted for its current audience, I especially recall the first version I heard when I was new to the cable industry more than two decades ago. The bride explains, "My last husband was a cable franchise director, and all he did was sit on the edge of the bed all night telling me how great it was going to be."

At all of the recent seminars and conferences, everyone proclaimed how great "it" — this time, broadband — would be. The beginning of this month even included a dream that the White House would bless the business with a reference to broadband during President Bush's State of the Union address.

That expectation, of course, went unrealized. The most avid hopefuls envisioned a presidential commitment for a 100-megabit-per-household target by the year 2010. That would, indeed, fulfill Silicon Valley's fantasies.

But why would the administration bless a technology or a service, or whatever broadband is, when the industry itself is still wrangling over fundamental structures and processes? Launching broadband may look
like rocket science, but it's not analogous to putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Bush may be no JFK, but neither is universal consumer broadband access a voter-inspiring manifest destiny — especially in today's economic malaise.

The expectation of a White House endorsement, and lengthy discussions about it, were the least of the broadband industry's distractions during the recent round of wonkish sparring. Broadband is still a world in which such fundamental definitions as qualifying speed can consume hours of debate.

How can you deal with serious issues of "Internet-protocol TV" or interactive killer applications when you can't even agree as to how quickly they should be delivered? And that doesn't even answer the question of who would deliver them.

Then there's the long-term vision for broadband. One recent afternoon, a self-selected cult of deep digerati convened for a closer look at "Internet 2" — academia's approach to high-speed service. This is a 2.4 gigabit-per-second hook-up that will be injected into the lives (or at least the labs and dormitories) of millions of college-age youths. Our future consumers!

The University of Michigan computer scientist who heads the Internet 2 consortium opined that "we're thinking too small" when we only look towards a 100 mbps-per-home solution. There's an upcoming generation of consumers who will demand bigger bandwidth, thanks to their college encounters. (He admitted that games and, yes, even pornography, may be part of that highest-speed experience.)

And, as the professor pointed out, uncompressed high-definition TV on its own will consume 1.5 gbps of that pipeline.

Among all these dreams, promises and self-serving policy debates, a few truths do shine through.

The Internet 2 process escalates that vision to a higher level than most of today's inter-industry feuds permit. Today's asynchronous delivery (i.e. vast bandwidth downstream, but merely a trickle upstream for order entry or electronic mail) may be satisfactory for these early stages. But why not think about full duplex parity, thus enabling true videoconferencing, distance learning and interactive entertainment?

That's where the dream and economic reality clash. The gigaband services (those at 100 mbps or higher) don't work on current cable-TV channelization systems. Future deployments would require new architectures, including routers at neighborhood nodes, thus adding to system cost and complexity.

How frustrating the real world can be.

Bob Pepper, the FCC's ebullient policy and planning chief, acknowledged that there "seems to be a demand gap," rather than a deployment problem. There's no value proposition to justify the higher price of broadband access, he noted.

The issue of "perceived value" lies beneath the entire debate over broadband and its ultimate "greatness." While it's politically correct (that is, worth paying huge lobbying fees) to spar about guaranteed rural availability or nab tax incentives for Silicon Valley "innovation," the justification for broadband comes from performance.

Beyond speed and always-on availability, performance encompasses the new kinds of services and applications that true broadband would encourage. The Napster Inc. file-sharing technology is invariably mentioned — and quickly derided, especially by the copyright police — as an example of what can bubble up when a platform is available to rule-bending amateurs.

Issues like that set the wonks off on another barrage of babble. But innovations from beyond the usual sources may indeed be the basis for how great broadband is going to be.

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