What Ails Broadband

Consumers are offered technology for the sake of technology instead of real services

Do people really want broadband Internet access in their homes? It has been five years since household broadband Internet connections first became available. Yet only 14 percent of U.S. homes with Internet-capable PCs have a broadband connection. In Europe, the figure is a paltry 4 percent.

Image: Bryan Christie

Why wouldn't everyone want broadband? It delivers bits at blinding speeds and it'll improve our lives in countless ways. We know that because the "techies" have told us so.

And that's the problem. Most people don't care about bits per second, packet switching, and latency. They care about how the technology is going to specifically affect their lives--for the better, hopefully. It is the techies who love technology for its own sake, and they are still running the telecommunications industry, as they have for the past 120 years.

In theory, there are no monopolies left in telecommunications. But bad, old habits from our monopoly days die hard. And these habits are turning out to be a serious obstacle in the maturation of broadband from a nonessential convenience (of spotty dependability, at that) to a standard service that revolutionizes the way we communicate, gather information, entertain ourselves, socialize, buy and sell things, and generally run our lives.

Products,not techno-babble

Instead of giving specific examples of how people's lives will be improved, instead of elaborating upon a vision in which people have easy access to vast repositories of information, entertainment, education, advice, images, tools, other people, and a hundred other benefits--we talk techno-babble. Instead of examining people's specific needs and developing products to fulfill those needs, as do all competitive industries, we start with technology and then try to jam it down the throats of our customers.

How should we sell broadband services? Consider the photography business. For decades, Kodak, Agfa, and Fuji have conditioned people to take pictures, deliver rolls of film to drug stores or photo shops, and return later to pick up the finished product. Imagine: two trips to the store, days apart, and a significant lag between taking a picture and viewing the result.

Now, with digital cameras, we can, at least in theory, view and exchange those pictures electronically after we load them into a computer. Some day that process might even be sufficiently straight-forward to be acceptable to the average consumer.

There is an obvious opportunity here. We already have the technology to deliver data wirelessly at high speed and at low cost. Nothing need keep us from letting people take photographs, look at them, and distribute those they like in seconds, without having to figure out the fine points of the picture transfer protocol or the Windows image acquisition driver.

At a megabit per second, it's possible to take a reasonably high-resolution picture and have it delivered to a Web server, or even a television set, in about a second. The entire process, including beaming a photo to your friends and relatives, could be accomplished with a single press of a button located next to the camera's shutter-release button. If you had such a camera, would you ever buy a roll of film again or go through the annoying exercise of transferring the picture from camera to hard disk to e-mail software?

The message, I hope, is clear. If Kodak, Agfa, and Fuji are to remain viable, they have to think, not about the technology on which they built their businesses, but rather about the needs of consumers and how they can best be served with all modern technologies. These companies are not in the film and chemicals business, nor even in the camera business. They are in the business of capturing images in a way that allows consumers to save and share those images as easily and conveniently as possible.

Similarly, is Sony in the business of selling plastic and cardboard in the form of CDs, or is it in the business of providing consumers with easy access to digital music from a huge catalog? I can't imagine why anyone would buy a particular recording artist's CD rather than pick an assortment of their favorite songs by that artist and download them to a disk in any order they chose. The Napster episode showed us years ago how easy it could be for consumers to find and download music to their computers. Artists and distributors would have to be compensated, of course, but the point was made: music companies would no longer be burdened with the cost of churning out plastic and cardboard.

Why would anyone buy a particular recording artist's CD rather than pick an assortment of their favorite songs by that artist and download them to a disk?

Game-playing will be an enormous market--far larger than it is today. It is perhaps the most demanding of all broadband applications, and it revolves around creating virtual realities. Huge amounts of bandwidth are needed to make these virtual realities come close to "real" realities. Once again, the software applications exist today that invite a consumer to enter virtual worlds, take part in creating them, and dynamically interact with other people in real time. Isn't that more interesting than dealing with games derived from the imagination of others in static, canned situations?

Many other broadband applications, in telemedicine, public safety, e-commerce, and education, could change consumers' lives. The convergence of computing and telecommunications and the impact of the Internet will inevitably alter the way we conduct business in the telecommunications industry.

Now allow me to ask again: do consumers need broadband? You bet they do!

Tailored communications

 

The next big question is, how are we going to give it to them? Existing systems, wired and wireless, are fundamentally structured for voice communications. Data has different requirements, yet the industry has focused on delivering data over its voice-optimized systems. This approach only adds to cost and complexity.

For example, people want voice communications everywhere all the time, whether they're sitting at a desk in the office or driving in a car at 120 km/h. Supplying that degree of mobility is very expensive. But the data-oriented applications I've described here--sending photographs, downloading music, playing video games--don't really have to be done while the user is traveling at high speed or, for that matter, in real time.

The best way to handle these different demands will be with different communications systems, each optimized to deliver content with different rules, different requirements, and different priorities. Successful communications companies will, as in every other competitive industry, start with consumer needs and then build systems, devices, services, and applications to serve those specific needs.

The legacy of the slow-moving but benevolent monopoly that decides what is good for the customer will have to go. Then the business will inevitably bifurcate: some companies will provide transport--moving the bits--and will market it to the others, which in turn will select a consumer niche, understand what the people in that niche want, and create and sell the applications that ride on the transports. Applications will be created by entrepreneurs and others who focus on determining market needs and fulfilling them; transport will be provided by those who can identify the varieties of content delivery required by the applications and can tailor delivery accordingly.

We don't even need new technologies; we have only to implement those that have evolved over the past 10 to 15 years. Using today's radio technology, for example, there's not enough spectrum to serve the entire consumer voice market, never mind the kinds of wireless applications described above. But technologies that can in effect multiply spectrum are already widely deployed, although not in the cellular industry. Adaptive-array technology (which employs so-called smart antennas) is already deployed in Asia. Ultralinear amplifiers and superconducting filters allow us to squeeze more radio channels into a fixed amount of spectrum.

The implementation of new technologies is far more gradual than most people realize. For a really new technology, cycle time from the laboratory to widespread practice is rarely less than 20 years. Changing the way we do business may be even more difficult, but the driving force will be consumers. Ultimately, consumers will vote with their pocketbooks, and they will vote for customized services and against technology for the sake of technology.

And when we finally get it right, they will embrace broadband.

Illustration: Anders Wengren

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