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The next step in building the Information Age: Moving to broadband

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The next step in building the Information Age: Moving to broadband

 James R. Messenger

Supercomm 2002, Jun 5 2002

Revisiting the fundamental technological/economic theory of the Information Age can provide insight on how to move the communications business into the future.


"Broadband!" has become the new rallying cry for restoring the computer and communications business economy. There's currently a major effort underway - initially launched by Dell, Intel, Motorola and NCR - by both computer manufacturers and communications industry companies promoting the idea that the time has come to move the United States to a "broadband" networking platform, particularly for use in high-speed Internet access. In fact, the movement to broadband - a term for large-capacity, high-speed transmission capability - is being urged as a national economic and security priority.

Through government lobbying efforts and conferences, the broadband effort is currently working to develop a consensus on the actual steps to take for moving America into a "broadband world" that many believe will provide the needed momentum to both revolutionize communications and trigger an economic boom in the United States. Ideas range from the Federal Government taking the lead to complete deregulation of telecommunications. 

Part of what's interfering with the discussion, of course, is the overhanging shadow of the massive "dot-com" failures, which unfortunately had a domino effect with communications service providers and equipment suppliers, as well as computer makers. The magnitude of that economic collapse took such a toll on investor and public confidence that many have called into question once again whether the Information Age is a real concept or simply a bill of goods that was sold for public consumption with no substance behind it.

By stepping back and taking a fresh look at the overall situation and the economic and technological principles involved, it is actually possible to see a clear path into the future and to determine what steps are necessary to return to a growth situation. 

What's key to the discussion is that the central failure in understanding exactly what economic potential was available to investors in past years relates directly to a failure in understanding the process by which communications networks are built.

By looking at the engineering process in tandem with the fundamental technological/economic theory upon which the Information Age is being built, a great deal of knowledge can be obtained for use in creating both a vision and a plan to implement the next necessary phase of communications development - universal application of broadband networks. TOP

A good place to start: The beginning of the communications revolution, 1982

When AT&T took the courageous step at the beginning of 1982 to announce the breakup of the world's biggest company - the largest single event that had ever taken place in business history - it did so for a specific reason. The tradeoff for the divestiture that would take place on 1/1/84 was that AT&T would gain the right to get involved with computers, something it had been forbidden to do as a result of an earlier consent degree. The question before one and all was just what that involvement would mean and become. 

However, by the end of 1982 the answer to that question had been answered with the creation of the fundamental theory that would serve as the foundation for the "Information Age:"

" The Information Age is a true new age based upon the interconnection of computers via telecommunications, with these information systems operating on both a real-time and as-needed basis.

"Furthermore, the primary factors driving this new age forward are convenience and user-friendliness, which, in turn, are creating user dependence. 

"User dependence is what will ensure the full implementation of the technological platform now becoming the foundation for a new economy, and dependence upon information systems is what will eventually distinguish the Information Age from the Industrial Age in the same manner that reliance upon mass production manufacturing techniques distinguished the Industrial Age from Agrarian Society."

Today, that theoretical statement may appear to be nothing more than common sense. But things did not seem quite so obvious and simple in the midst of the great cloud of confusion surrounding the breakup of "Ma Bell" nearly 20 years ago. Plus, that definition is also deceptively simple in the manner of another economic statement that reads "revenues - costs = profit," something for which Nobel Prizes are awarded to economists who deal with the issues generated by that little formula.

A key factor embedded within the theory of the Information Age is the inexorable nature of a new age. Convenience alone will keep driving implementation of this evolutionary process until it is complete, with the primary variable being speed of implementation. The new effort to make broadband communications a national priority is targeted directly at the issue of speed of implementation. TOP

The difficulties along the way: 1982 until today

History explains a lot about the current stage of development of the Information Age. In trying to implement this new concept, a root problem showed up immediately. A new kind of network made up of the combination of computers and telecommunications would have to be one where all parts could communicate with one another to function properly. 

Computers, for instance, "speak" digitally and thus communicate in binary code.  But, unfortunately, the telecommunications networks in existence in 1982 - not only in the United States but also throughout the world - were analog networks not compatible in the least with computers. And, very importantly from the point of view of the business leadership then running the world's networks, most of the communications systems in existence were the result of well over 100 years of financial investment, not a factor to discount lightly.

In short, for the Information Age to be created on the basis of the above theory, it became clear that communications networks would have to be rebuilt essentially from scratch as digital systems. Plus, there was also a very legitimate concern in many quarters that making such a gamble would not pay off if computers - PCs were still in their infancy - also didn't "take off," which, interestingly enough, also happens to be the kind of question very much under discussion today relative to the so-called "fiber glut:" Will anyone ever use it?

Information Age development therefore came slowly and occurred in fits and starts. There was one group of people who believed in taking the risk to build the necessary technology platform that would serve as the foundation for the new economic opportunities of the Information Age. BellSouth's legendary visionary Dick Snelling was one such person who pursued this course, and the remarkable optical fiber, self-healing network that resulted was an important factor in helping Atlanta get the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games.

But there were also other equally powerful individuals who quite reasonably felt that maintaining a traditional, high-quality analog network was the best business solution and these individuals pressed for investment in that kind of development to maintain the quality of the analog "cash cow" telephone networks. 

In fact, it really only became apparent at the Atlanta Supercomm communications trade show in June 1998 that consensus had finally been reached by the world's network service providers and communications equipment vendors concerning the necessity for moving completely to a data-networking world as the basis of communications. TOP

Several turning points

An important turning point in moving to all-digital networks that still gives chills to many old timers in the telephone business was a TV commercial by a company that showed a pin dropping and which suggested that the all-optical fiber, all-digital network that belonged to Sprint had such high quality that one could actually hear that pin dropping. The move to digital communications transmission, particularly through the use of fiber optic cable, was thus assured as service providers raced to be able to claim the same kind of quality for their networks.

A second major turning point in "proving" that the Information Age could become real was the invention of some software by a fellow named Marc Andreesen called a "web browser" that introduced user convenience to what had been a government data network almost exclusively used by scientists "geek" enough to learn the arcane rules of the Internet. No one quite anticipated the sudden explosion of Internet users resulting from the creation of the web browser, with the numbers jumping from several hundred thousand in the late 1980's to the current millions. Throughout the 1990s, Internet users fueled a desperate growth in networks as these customers began filling network "pipes" to capacity.

What really happened to communications service providers with the rise of the Internet was a complete change in the pattern of how customers use networks. For a hundred years or so previously, studies showed customer use of networks being solid (and predictable) as a rock - customers making telephone calls averaged about three minutes on the phone, year in, year out. That knowledge gave an excellent foundation for how large networks should become relative to the population to remain profitable at any particular point in time.

But with the advent of the Internet and other types of data applications, suddenly everything went haywire and network circuits were being held for 40 or 60 minutes or more at a single time as customers "surfed" the Internet, thus denying other customers access to phone lines. The only solution out of this dilemma for network service providers was to dramatically increase the size of their networks - and they had to do so fast, if they were to maintain their company's reputation for quality. So the boom in communications was on.

As this explosion in network usage and the number of Internet subscribers continued unabated, economic potential was no longer just a fantasy of some theory of the Information Age, but had turned into a dazzling possibility for real economic gain, with tens of millions of potential customers worldwide. And it was that dazzling light that blinded investors in the "dot.coms." TOP

Tripping over the technology

The "go-go" days of the dot-coms were certainly exciting and heady. The explosion of creativity and the number of businesses sketched out on a napkin are legendary. And many of the ideas that were stimulated should be held onto, because they may well prove highly profitable in the future. But they won't right now.

The great defect in the thinking of the dot-com era is that there happens to be a very logical pattern as to how communications networks get built, and just a glance at the state of network development at the time of the dot-com boom should have told all involved that the necessary network infrastructure was not - and still is not - fully in place to make the dot-coms highly profitable as everyone anticipated.

The dot-coms were primarily software companies and were - to use jargon - "data heavy." That meant huge amounts of information would have to flow between online companies and customers to sell and provide the services offered. And, of course, consumers, who serve as the primary economic engine of our Capitalist society, would serve as highly important target customers.

The great boom in the dot-com era tripped, and tripped very badly, as investors know. But what most still don't understand is that the dot-coms tripped over two little copper wires that comprise the typical phone line installed in most homes and businesses. The "twisted copper pair" of wires (one for incoming voice and one for voice going back to the caller) used by almost all telephone companies for primary access to their customers harks back to the days of traditional analog telephone networks and were neither intended nor designed to handle data, only voice conversations. And this "twisted copper pair" is still currently "all there is" in millions upon millions of homes and businesses throughout America and the world. 

What the dot-coms required for success was the communications equivalent of an oil or natural gas pipeline to their customers that could handle large amounts of data - what is now called "broadband." What they got instead were circuits equivalent in size to a couple of cocktail straws. So the dot-coms - regardless of the brilliance of the ideas behind many of those companies - hit a logjam resting right at their customers' premises, which they could not and, in most cases, still cannot get past.

It is also a fact of life that when one cannot reach his or her customers, there's little chance that anything can or will be sold. The result is that most dot-coms went down to their ruin. 

But this explains clearly why there is a new industry focus on "broadband" - large capacity, high-speed - communications, which is precisely the next step necessary in the continuing evolution of the Information Age. The question under discussion is how to rapidly accomplish the move to broadband as a universal communications standard, especially in today's economic environment. TOP

What does "broadband" mean and why is it important?

As indicated above, broadband really amounts to a capability to transmit huge amounts of data to and from computers. But another concept is equally important for broadband - transmissions have to happen quickly. Human beings don't like to wait long periods or else they tend to lose interest in whatever they're doing, so this aspect of human nature can have a real economic impact, particularly when one is trying to sell something.

As a result, optical fiber tends to be the preferred transmission "superhighway" for broadband because fiber has the capability of transmitting virtually unlimited amounts of information quite literally at the speed of light. This means that in the long run, because of the speed of light, when the full Information Age technology infrastructure is in place, information access will be instantaneous no matter where one is in the world - one very good reason/benefit for speeding up the implementation of universal broadband capability.

Broadband communications can also be sent via wireless systems, and wireless networks are being rebuilt to take advantage of this important opportunity.  The only drawback is that wireless broadband requires an enormous amount of radio spectrum, and unless some new technology appears that can make greater use of the fixed amount of spectrum that exists (and this probably will occur, given the rapid evolution of communications today), there may one day be a limit on the number of simultaneous wireless broadband users, though the potential for wireless broadband is simply enormous and also quite exciting in its possibilities. TOP

Why would anyone need broadband?

Broadband offers the opportunity for applications and services that are simply beyond out current imagining (and that's where the dot-coms will fit in later in the future). For instance, "telemedicine" is a tool that might save lives for those living in remote areas. Movies that enable the viewer to change the ending or the very story line could become a new form of entertainment. Universities and colleges could turn into global educational institutions. The possibilities boggle one's imagination.

But as one practical example that would affect users immediately, broadband is not only necessary, but also essential if the use of video in information systems is to become the norm. That's because video requires the transmission of colossal amounts of information to create the 30 pictures a second necessary to match broadcast TV quality, a standard that must be matched to meet customer expectations, i.e. to provide what people are used to seeing on TV or cable. As those who have waited - and waited - and waited for video clips to download to their computers using today's technologies understand, only broadband systems can transmit this much information quickly.

And if one will consider that video commercials are essential to modern commerce, one can understand rather quickly the importance of this use of broadband for the Information Age to succeed. Also, other uses such as video-on-demand, etc., will all depend upon broadband capability.

The new, and many-as-yet-undreamed-of applications - in education, in business, in entertainment, etc. - that will appear from the entrepreneurial dot-com mentality, will also require huge data flow for these large, super-sophisticated computer programs to operate, otherwise the offerings will remain fairly limited - as they are today - when forced to match whatever transmission technology is available.

As these simple examples demonstrate, for the Information Age to reach full fruition and to become the operating platform for a viable new economy, one providing instantaneous access to information and communications anywhere, broadband capabilities will be essential to achieve as the standard format for operation. That's why there is a new rallying cry around "broadband" as the critical "next step" in economic development for America and the world. That's also why a way to make that transition happen universally needs to be found, so that large quantities of information can begin to flow to generate economic opportunity. TOP

But how do we get to a broadband future?

This is where the application of logic and perspective can provide help. First, in terms of overall transmission capability, there is fortunately already an amazing amount of optical fiber in existence within many of the networks in existence today. The main "glut" one hears about really has to do primarily with the long distance networks, because that is where fiber was first introduced and has been most thoroughly implemented. Since the long distance service providers carry "bulk" transmission of huge amounts of information, usually over very long routes, optical fiber with its huge capacity early on became a perfect match for long haul network business requirements.

But a communications transmission between users also has to go from long distance carriers into local networks for final delivery. And local networks are where fiber growth currently is in the most intensive building phase. The focus has been on "Metro" networks for the past several years as these service providers build to keep up with the increasing use of data and the Internet by their customers; to create fiber networks that can handle very complex traffic that is often far different from that of the long distance carriers; and local/metro networks are expanding to match the information-carrying capabilities/capacity of the long distance service providers to meet the needs of future data-rich applications.

From the above, one can readily see that the nature of network development and implementation of new technologies has been following a pattern of gradually moving closer and closer to end user customers.  So simple logic says the next two phases of needed development for the Information Age communications infrastructure will be improved access from local communications service providers to customer premises, whether home or office (doing something about those two archaic twisted copper wires most people possess), and, finally, premises networks within homes and businesses that can distribute and manage the huge information flow when it arrives. 

These latter two stages are the most serious hurdles to overcome primarily because of the expense and time involved. Consider the millions of homes and businesses that must have access and internal wiring solutions implemented. And if one will also consider the time and the cost of individually dealing with this situation through sending out a truck and crew for installation, one can understand the magnitude of this particular problem.

Optical fiber is what many believe will be the ultimate solution for access to homes and businesses because its nearly unlimited information carrying capacity is consistent with what the communications services providers use for transmission, but this technology is currently still in its developmental phase.

For local networking within homes and businesses, a number of approaches are being applied using optical fiber, coaxial cable, and wireless solutions for premises networks, and the approach can differ depending upon whether it is new building construction or installation in existing buildings. But this progress has been slow as well because end users are still not quite sure whether this kind of internal network will prove a "need" or a "luxury."

But the fact remains that until this situation is overcome, the Information Age will remain only partially implemented in terms of the overall technology platform required. That, in turn, places limits on realizing the full economic potential of the Information Age economy, and the Information Age itself could possibly even enter a stagnant state for quite some time simply because any limits on the size of data flow will place limits on the size and capabilities of applications. And getting rid of any limitations in communications is precisely what the computer and communications business leadership in America is currently trying to achieve. TOP

DSL and cable broadband to the (temporary) rescue

Because of the magnitude of the implementation job that will have to take place to "finish" the Information Age infrastructure, interim solutions have been developed to provide "broadband" capabilities now that also buy service providers time to manage the massive new technology installation that will need to take place to create a permanent technology base. Customers, in fact, can go ahead and move to the next step of communications speed and development and to utilize broadband information flow through these solutions. 

One such broadband solution is "cable broadband." This solution uses cable modems typically combined with cable TV coaxial cable to bypass the twisted copper pair problem. Cable modems have had a fair degree of success in moving customers to the next level of communications, but this technology also depends upon whether a customer subscribes to cable TV and whether the application is offered.

Another solution being offered is DSL service, a technology now being widely promoted and used by local telephone companies (and other DSL service vendors) to dramatically increase the speed of access to homes. DSL does this through the use of software that can "cram" large quantities of data into the already existing twisted copper pair connecting most homes to their local phone company. DSL also enables users to "always be online" to the Internet, while at the same time providing a telephone line by "splitting" off some of the capacity provided. This dual access enables customers to both use the phone and to surf the Internet simultaneously where, previously, using older technology customers could have done one or the other, but not both, unless they had a second phone line.

Some problems have been encountered in rolling out DSL in the form of service availability (one must be within a certain geographic distance of a serving office) and with initial installation problems. There has also been a fair amount of resistance to DSL pricing plans. Today, the installation issues appear to be much improved. But the cost issues are still possibly causing slower-than-desired implementation rates for DSL broadband.

Even though customers would perhaps like to get DSL high-speed access, it is the fact that DSL charges typically do not include the cost of the phone line, but are simply new charges imposed on top of what customers are already paying for phone service that is making customers look closely at this buying decision, especially in today's economy. 

The result is that in terms of cost-to-benefit, especially when DSL service is often about twice the price of local phone service, there often does not seem to be a large enough benefit perceived by many customers to justify the price of the service. This is compounded by the fact that most telephone modems today provide more than sufficient speed for people "surfing" the Internet and viewing available applications. 

What seems to be lacking is that customers are still seeking to understand the real benefits of broadband technology. Just what is it they will be getting for their money besides faster access to the Internet? Is this a short-term gimmick or a new long-term network philosophy? Is broadband part of a vision for moving into the new economic opportunities of the Information Age that will also bring benefits to customers or just another service to increase revenues for a communications service provider? Providing answers to those questions can help tell the full benefits story. TOP

So here's the "Catch-22"

The "Catch-22" of broadband is that until enough customers make the switch to broadband communications, there won't be a sufficiently large group of people to make the introduction of new broadband types of applications economically feasible and development will stagnate. And from the customer perspective, until there are enough useful applications using broadband to require customers to make the move to a broadband environment, why should customers waste their money on something they perceive to be of small value (or at least of less value than what they would be charged)?

Logic would suggest that there needs to be an economic or convenience incentive of some sort for end user customers to make the switch to broadband.  Free or reduced-cost modems needed for either DSL or cable modem broadband service, free installation and/or some free broadband service just haven't proven the "killer" solutions for customers to rationalize this additional monthly expense, which is a critical decision in our current economic times.  So this also remains an issue that needs some careful thought and analysis.

What some perceive to be happening today is an unfortunate repeat of an earlier "broadband" technology implementation strategy that occurred about ten years ago for what was known as ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) technology. At that time, network service providers could not (perhaps due to cost considerations relative to providing the service) or would not yield to customer resistance on the issues of pricing, features, and installation costs for ISDN, which were the primary blockage points to rolling out ISDN service. The result was that no service provider really made any money on ISDN service, little application development for ISDN ever occurred, and ISDN service died without ever getting off the ground.  That's an excellent cautionary tale.

And it is particularly significant since the application of broadband as the primary communications service standard is an essential pivot point for completion of the Information Age technology infrastructure, the mechanism that will enable the economic benefits of the evolving Information Age. TOP 

The search for solutions

As just one example of how to possibly tackle the broadband implementation issue, some consideration might be made for "bundling" local telephone service and DSL or cable modem access in a more attractive "loss leader" pricing strategy and to let customer dependence upon the new service become the factor that holds customers for the long run. Becoming dependent upon the convenience of high-speed communications would also tend to make customers more accepting towards the purchase of new features, applications and services as they arise.  After all, anyone who was ever spoiled by a hammer probably hasn't gone back to driving nails with a rock. (But this is also where government policy plays a role in the issue, since local communications service providers are still regulated.)

If the Federal Government put its weight behind broadband communications as a national policy imperative, perhaps premises equipment necessary for broadband and installation costs could become fully tax deductible for all end users. But this again relates to a common vision and consensus on the importance of moving into the Information Age - and being fully conscious that the Information Age is a true new age and not just an extension of the Industrial Age, which affects how one views and understands the technology.

In turn, a large growth in broadband customer numbers would help stimulate new applications that could revive the dot-com entrepreneurial spirit, spurring growth, and moneymaking applications and services for everyone. TOP

Has PBS/WGBH TV Boston discovered the solution?

As with any "sales and marketing" effort, it's the benefits from a product or service that ultimately make the difference for users. Can this be done simply and effectively? Judging by the national Public Broadcasting Service/WGBH web site for the TV mini-series "Commanding Heights," it can. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/commandingheights/)

By offering two distinct versions of the web site - one that's enhanced with broadband capabilities - not only is curiosity raised, but one gets the distinct impression that one is "missing out" on additional features and information by not having access via broadband.

While this would take additional effort and expense up front to offer two formats, the clear differentiation of the broadband enhancement will drive users towards it, speeding the implementation of broadband.
Note how the two offerings read:

  • "Rich-media site with interactive features optimized for broadband users"
  • "Text-friendly low-bandwidth version"

Which would you prefer to use? Does this characterization perhaps even give the distinct impression that low bandwidth is already a "dinosaur"? TOP

The bottom line

After all is said and done, the core fact remains that unless some individual "killer" application surfaces to change the landscape of broadband that will make it a universal "necessity," some form of creative thinking like the above surely needs to be applied to help customers understand the value of what they are paying for when it comes to DSL and cable modem broadband access, with the same holding true for other broadband access technologies when these become available. 

Also needing to be addressed is the long-term strategy service providers will be implementing in ultimately providing fiber optic cable access that will give end users the kind of unlimited capacity that matches the flow from local and long distance networks in order to take the Information Age to its full potential.

And, lastly, what about premises network solutions for users? If no one is able use and manage the information pouring into their home or business, what's the point?

What this all adds up to is the need for a highly understandable vision of the future - and that is exactly what the leadership of the computer and communications industries are now trying to shape around the move to broadband communications as a universal standard.

Putting forth a vision, a commitment and a comprehensive plan for finishing the building of the necessary technological foundation for the new economy called the Information Age will serve to provide both Wall Street and end-user customers with a renewed sense of confidence in the future. The lack of confidence that's been radiated - and surely not intentionally - by the entire communications and computer industries ever since the collapse of the dot-coms must be replaced with such a vision and clear direction for the broadband effort to succeed.

The best news is that the computer makers and the communications industry businesses are all in accord that action of some form needs to take place, and that the time for action is now. That is truly exciting news. And this effort is perhaps also a reflection of a common feeling that the overall economy has turned and is headed up once again. TOP

Going back to basics to start the discussion can help yield the needed answers

By starting with the essential technological/economic theory of the Information Age and extrapolating out from that model through the use of logic, it is possible to see the current stage of development of today's communications systems and tools. Such an analysis also shows what needs to be done to complete the technology infrastructure that will serve as the foundation for a new world economy, one so powerful in its potential effect that it holds the promise of a positive new future for the entire planet - and, possibly, might even serve to stimulate a global Renaissance as a result of all the innovative thinking and creativity.

Plus, understanding that necessary evolution can help businesses learn how to approach customers in order to partner with them so that all involved can come to depend upon this new broadband network infrastructure for use in both one's livelihood and in one's personal life. 

Pursuing the development of broadband through this kind of rational analysis and discussion, all the stakeholders should come to understand how to move ahead in a progressive fashion in their particular sphere. And the combined effect of those individual efforts driving forward behind a common vision - one designed for moving aggressively and positively into the Information Age - should help stimulate the economy as a whole towards returning to positive growth.

In any case, the future is in our hands and it's up to us to either plan our way into that future or to let the Information Age move forward on its own accord, in which case others will more than likely take the lead.

James R. Messenger is a communications consultant who recently retired from Lucent Technologies as a Senior Manager of Public Relations after serving 19 years with Lucent and AT&T.


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