Faster, cheaper, everything you always wantedin a commoncarrier. Broadband is the soon-to-be-retired buzzword of the yeargone by. Not as fashionable as WAP, but infinitely more important.Not as cheap as POTS, but essential, nonetheless, to modernbusiness. But it’s not the savior of man-, woman- orengineering-kind either.
The first thing to remember: Broadband is just anotherdistribution method. Second thing to remember: E-business is justbusiness. Whether it’s DAM (digital asset management), VPNs orentertainment, the Internet is changing the first world, andbroadband is changing the Net, but not in as fundamental a way assome might think. The telegraph started us on this instantcommunication road, and broadband is just a natural extension.
In 1992, some renegades from Skywalker Ranch started EDnet, thegrandpa of virtual tie line services. They first used ISDN, theonly reasonably priced digital service available from the telcos atthat time, to send approval mixes from Northern California toSouthern California for the Ron Howard film Backdraft.ISDN was too costly for widespread adoption and never madesignificant inroads here in the States. A basic business SDSLaccount provides 12 times the bandwidth of a similarly priced ISDNaccount. A single channel of raw 48/24 requires 1.152 Mbps, and twochannels of 44.1/16 sucks up 1.4112 Mbps. With a symmetrical, 1.5Mbps, always-on SDSL connection, phoning in your part doesn’t seemso lame. The investors of Rocket Network are trembling withanticipation.
So let’s talk about the current technologies. Right now,symmetrical broadband access to the Net is really valuable only toselect businesses, such as multinationals with far-flung satelliteoffices. Media moguls, like ourselves, are a small but oftenmotivated group that could also benefit from broadband services.Trouble is, most of us don’t get paid enough to affordindustrial-strength versions.
THE CONTENDERS: CABLE
In some outlets, cable is the only way you can get broadbandservice. Several cable providers are starting to price theirservices aggressively, targeting corporate users in addition to thehome accounts that we’ve all heard about. Like the danglingparticiple in my previous sentence, broadband via cable has oneglaring problemthe dreaded shared bandwidth. With half a dozensubscribers in a neighborhood, life is good, as the fixed bandwidthavailable is divvied up only a few ways. As more and moresubscribers tap in, however, individual service degenerates as theaggregate bandwidth is sliced wafer thin. Just think what videoover IP would do!
My cell phone is a WAPenabled device that works great as adigital phone, which isn’t saying much. It’s supposed to be freeand clear, but, boy, can you hear the compression artifacts.Anyway, it has a Web mini-browser, which I never use due to twofactors: exorbitant cost and absurd display. Imagine getting deeplyinvolved with the wireless Internet when you’re staring at a screenthe size of a Brazil nut. That about sums up the current state ofwireless broadbandcostly and quirky.
Currently, there is practical broadband wireless, and it comesin two distinct flavors. So-called fixed wireless applications,where the transceivers are nailed down, are projected to be ahigh-growth area of broadband services. One approach has targetedMANs, or metro area networks, where fat connections betweenbuildings in a campus setting are desired, but digging up the lawnto plant some fiber isn’t. The other approach is more akin to somecurrent digital TV services; they use a satellite. These services,aimed at the more than 20 million folks outside the reach of fiber,cable or copper, will be challenged by rural electric utilitiesthat will offer AC power and broadband into your house over thesame wire.
G3, or third-generation wireless protocols, promise seeminglyinfinite bandwidth anywhere. In reality, migration costs will limitadoption to those who really need such services. Once betterstandards emerge and consumer products mature, wireless deliverywill become another specialized player in the overall informationdissemination fabric.
DSL is the winner in the interim time frame, with reasonablecost for both provider and consumer as long as you’re physicallyclose to your local telco switch. A significant feature of allbusiness DSL accounts is a static IP address. This means that yourcompany has a permanent address on the Web, which in turn means youcan host an ftp or Web site in-house.
The content: Data, it’s all data. Just as networked storage willsome day all be transported over IP, I’ll hazard a guess that evena nice reuben sandwich will someday be delivered via IP packets.Just kidding, though it seems that way at times. Eventually, IPtraffic will carry everything, both block- and file-based data,around the world.
The emerging 10Gigabit Ethernet standard is shaping up as thebridge between LANs and MAN/WANs. 10GigE explicitly incorporatesQoS (Quality of Service), a feature not inherent in the PSTNnetwork and vital to the continued growth of broadband.Interestingly, general adoption of 10GigE should foreshadow theeventual retirement of reliable but expensive ATM, which has beenthe only way to provide WANs and MANs with guaranteed QoS.
The catalyst for widespread adoption may not be, gasp, surroundaudio but good ol’ low-bandwidth voice communication. Becausedisagreements between record companies and CE manufacturerscontinue to impede the development of a digital content protectionstandard, music downloads won’t fill up anyone’s bank account anytime soon. Instead, everybody’s frantically vying for a piece ofthe VoIP action, hoping to cash in on the public’s perception ofthe Net as a place to go for anything cheap. And money is reallythe gating factor for broadband. Though fiber to the home willeventually win the war, the required changes to the infrastructure,whether it’s a passel of new photonic DWDM switches at the localexchange or licenses for wireless spectrum from the government, arehorribly expensive. Who’s going to bear those costs? If you saidthe end-user, then me thinks you’d be right.
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