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December 28, 2009 11:39 AM

More Bandwidth Means Less Friction Means Greater Usage

A few weeks ago I met Patrick Chung, managing director for SK Telecom Ventures, at Supernova, a terrific conference in San Francisco focused on communications technologies and their ramifications.

SK Telecom Ventures is the venture arm of SK Telecom, one of the leading telecommunications companies in South Korea.

Any time I meet someone involved in telecommunications who's connected to South Korea I like to ask the question: So what cool things are happening on fiber over there?

Patrick ran through the usual suspects of video-on-demand, videoconferencing, and the like, but I had to stop him. All of the things he was listing could be delivered over lesser broadband technologies. So I asked again: What cool applications are specifically leveraging the power of fiber?

His answer was fascinating. He suggested that it wasn't about any one application, but that the capacity of fiber was providing enough bandwidth to remove all friction that might otherwise prevent users from taking advantage of Internet applications.

I've never heard it described this way before but it's elegant and makes perfect sense. Lack of bandwidth leads to poor performing applications which creates disincentives for usage. But having adequate bandwidth removes this friction. And if apps perform the way they're meant to then users are more likely to adopt them.

Sometimes those of us who advocate for fiber get caught up in trying to identify the killer app, the single application that justifies the need for fiber. But in South Korea it's not about any one bandwidth-intensive application but rather that the availability of fiber is making it easier for everyone to use anything that's currently available.

This also presents an interesting new angle for our argument on behalf of fiber.

Too often we get stuck on the question of "Why do we need all this bandwidth when no individual apps require it?"

But now we can answer: "Because if we want people to adopt broadband then they need to have enough capacity so as not to introduce friction when they're trying to use today's apps let alone tomorrow's."

I'd also like to suggest three other sources of friction: price, service, and usability.

The price of bandwidth is the primary problem most people focus on. It's not new to suggest that the cost of broadband is a barrier to adoption and usage. But it's usually discussed as a standalone issue, not as something that presents the same problem as the lack of capacity, namely that it introduces friction which can limit use.

Along these same lines, I think we have to acknowledge the role that service plays in creating friction. If there are times my broadband connection doesn't work at all or as well as usual, then that's going to dissuade me from relying on it. Similarly, if I feel like I'm not being respected as a customer by my provider, then I'm less likely to keep paying for service, especially if I'm questioning the need for broadband in the first place.

Finally, usability is another key source of friction. The less intuitive a service or app the less likely people are to use it. This is an issue that goes beyond just broadband to also usability concerns surrounding computers and apps, but it's important to note in this conversation as well.

All of these factors can create the friction that suppresses adoption and use of broadband. But what's important to realize is that these last three don't really matter if the friction of inadequate bandwidth isn't removed.

If there isn't enough bandwidth, then it doesn't matter how much it costs, or what quality of service I'm getting, or how usable the interface is. There's nothing more fundamental than having adequate bandwidth. If I can't run the apps I want to smoothly, then I'm not going to use broadband.

So when we talk about why we need fiber, let's not focus so much on finding killer apps and instead put a greater emphasis on the friction-fighting power of fiber.

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Comments (3)

Here's something I adapted from John Windhausen's remarks when trying to explain why we need bandwidth -- in both directions. From: http://www.thewavehawaii.com/index.php/archives/innovation/creating-hawaiis-broadband-future

Imagine high-definition interactive videoconferencing enabling you to participate in business meetings from home so you can avoid traffic and reduce your carbon footprint. Imagine your father consulting from home with his physician about early-onset Alzheimer’s, with the physician able to see confusion on his face. Imagine your son uploading the high-definition video he just finished editing to submit his high school graduation capstone project. Imagine your daughter remotely operating an instructional telescope located at the top of Mauna Kea while viewing images of the data that are produced using a supercomputer on Maui.

Imagine these things going on in your home — all at once — over a high-speed broadband connection.

Posted by David Lassner on December 28, 2009 1:32 PM

That's a great point. If information is even slightly painful to reach, it often isn't reached at all. On the other extreme, look at how many bar arguments are settled due to easy access to Wikipedia on phones today. It's a wonderful thing.

Posted by Ed Kohler on December 29, 2009 4:43 PM

This is a great post. I have been speaking with a group of people about this very thing. A new point of view to give them.

Posted by Jessie on December 30, 2009 10:52 PM

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