February 2011 Archives

Talk of the day when we will no longer use physical media like CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray discs is accelerating faster than ever, as exemplified in particular by Apple.

Their next generation operating system appears as though it's going to be delivered through the Mac App Store electronically rather than shipped on disc. They're positioning this Store to be the gateway for almost all software on Macs. They're already responsible for driving the digital download knife much deeper into the CD market through the three-headed beast of iTunes, iPods, and iPhones. And they're starting to push hard to do the same to DVDs and Blu-Ray for TV and movies.

While Apple's far from alone in the push to transition media distribution away from shipping physical media and towards network delivery, they're one of the most visible and successful companies pushing for this ideal that could have a huge impact on our economy and environment. But this impact won't happen without the availability of lots and lots of bandwidth.

We live in a world today that has the technological capability of getting rid of physical media, yet we're still producing well over a billion optical discs a year. That's 20,000 tons of plastic just on the discs, and likely at least another 20,000 tons of plastic for packaging. That's a billion discs that have to be housed in large buildings and that represent inventory that has to be managed to insure supply and profit. That's a billion discs that have to be shipped to these stores.

While I don't have a good number for the overall affect of physical media waste and transportation on the environment, and it's likely to be a number relatively small to the total amount of waste we produce, there's no denying that this is a significant and avoidable number.

You can then expand the argument against physical media to include almost all things paper. Many rightly argue that ink on paper delivers a tactile experience that computers can't, but that doesn't change the fact that we create an incredible amount of waste when trying to convey messages through paper. So much paper mail, newspapers, books, magazines, and more, all of which needs to be produced, stored, shipped, and then will likely some day be thrown away, with most of this waste being completely unnecessary.

By more fully embracing the transition away from physical media we not only eliminate waste, we'll also get to benefit from the many benefits of online distribution, like the fact a book, movie, album, or whatever can be stored once and inventory created only as demand warrants and without any significant incremental cost in resources to produce or deliver it.

Of course, despite this promise, we're not quite yet living in a day when we can completely abandon physical media. Too many people aren't connected yet, the business models aren't fully developed and consumer-friendly enough relative to traditional media distribution, and for users getting into the digital download ecosystem is still too expensive, too complicated to use, and most instances have too many usage restrictions on the content.

But this is the future that technology is racing to. This is one aspect of our broadband-powered future that we've all been waiting for and we're now watching happen in front of our eyes.

Here's the most important thing, though: this future needs lots and lots of bandwidth to establish itself further and thrive into the future.

For Apple to want to move into an all digital download world is great, but how do they expect their users to be able to have a good experience moving with them in this direction if their broadband connections aren't up to snuff? How long are users willing to wait for their content if their pipes aren't big enough?

This is a very real problem given the patchwork state of America's broadband ecosystem.

To help put the need for lots and lots of bandwidth to drive the transition to digital downloads, let's lay this out in some concrete terms.

For starters, a music album on a CD is typically about a 700MB file. A two-hour movie on a DVD is about 5GB (it can sometimes be a dual-layer disc and use closer to 9GB, but we'll start with 5GB for now). And a two-hour HD movie on Blu-Ray is 25GB (could also double in some instances to 50GB).

Now let's see, how long would it take to download that music album using different connections? (Times below are ballpark rather than exact.)

56Kbps - 29 hours
1.5Mbps - 1 hour
50Mbps - 2 minutes
100Mbps - 1 minute
1Gbps - 5 seconds

OK, so how long will it take to download that standard definition movie instead of getting it on DVD?

56Kbps - 230 hours
1.5Mbps - 8 hours
50Mbps - 15 minutes
100Mbps - 7 minutes
1Gbps - 1 minute

And what about that HD movie on Blu-Ray?

56Kbps - 1,000 hours
1.5Mbps - 40 hours
50Mbps - 1 hour
100Mbps - 30 minutes
1Gbps - 4 minutes

Now to further put this within the context of our national broadband ambitions, the FCC has set the goal of delivering 4Mbps service to nearly all Americans. Let's give them the best-case scenario and say that an HD movie delivered online would be more compressed and therefore have a smaller file size, roughly equivalent to a standard definition movie on DVD, or 5GB.

To deliver that compressed 5GB HD movie over a 4Mbps connection will take at least 3 hours. And this truly is a best-case scenario as what happens if someone else is trying to use the Internet on that broadband connection? What if that broadband connection is shared and too oversubscribed so that while the provider says they're offering 4Mbps service in reality the throughput being realized by users is much lower? And what if a user actually wants to watch an HD movie in full HD on their new HD TV? Well now we're back to a 25GB+ file that'll take 15+ hours to download at 4Mbps.

Then as an additional wrinkle, what about bandwidth caps? If we want to start moving consumers to buying all their music, video, and software online rather than on disc, then we're going to start seeing tomorrow's average users look a lot like the today's bandwidth hogs that many broadband providers are trying to limit through caps.

What this all comes back to is that if we want to realize the full potential of the digital download world that Apple's pushing hard to make a reality, then we have to have a broadband infrastructure in place to support this digital economy.

And yet, where has Apple been in the national broadband planning process? Why aren't they out there as champions for high bandwidth, high cap networks to enable their vision for the future of their business?

This criticism is not just limited to Apple. Any business that plans to grow itself based on the digital download model should be a champion for getting next generation broadband networks deployed as far, as wide, and as fast as possible, as without these networks we'll never be able to transition away from physical media.

So if you're an individual, a company, or an organization that believes the future of America's entertainment and software economies should rely on digital downloads rather than producing and distributing wasteful physical media then it's time to stand up and start demanding that our citizens get the kind of networks we need to realize the potential of this revolutionary new paradigm.

Put simply: the hype of a world without physical media will never turn into a reality without lots of bandwidth to support it, just like light bulbs, refrigerators, and toasters couldn't happen until everyone had adequate electricity. Until we more fully realize this truth and its ramifications, the growth of our country's digital economy will continue to be stunted.

America Falls Far Short Of South Korean Ambition

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Well here we go, our South Korean friends are at it again, setting the goal of delivering 1Gbps to all of its residents by 2012. By doing this they're raising the bar even higher for what it means to have a globally competitive broadband infrastructure.

While this is far from the first time I've lamented seeing South Korea leave America in its dust bandwidth-wise, because of the release of the National Broadband Map we now have an image that clearly lays out just how severely we're falling short if we want to be an international broadband leader, namely the current deployment of fiber in the US:

us fiber deployment 3.jpg

Notice something missing? Like any widespread fiber deployment?!

The reason this map is so significant is that if you're talking about want to deliver 1Gbps to homes, there's really no technology that can enable that today other than fiber. Cable may be able to get there some day in the future, but it's not there yet and even if it gets there its upload capacity will likely continue to be inadequate and its performance will be underwhelming. DSL will be lucky to hit 100Mbps, and wireless will never be able to reliably deliver that kind of capacity.

Basically, if America wants to deliver 1Gbps service we need fiber, and as is shown by this map we just don't have much fiber deployed yet.

Making this even more frustrating is that because South Korea has focused investment in large-scale fiber deployment, it'll be easy for them to continue raising this bar. It wouldn't surprise me to see them jump to 10Gbps in the next five years, which they can do because fiber can be upgrade easily and almost indefinitely.

On our side of the Pacific, there's no clear path for how we can achieve anything resembling universal access to 1Gbps service. Not just in the next two years to keep up with South Korea but ever. I hate to be pessimistic or fall victim to using too much hyperbole, but just look at this map! We're not just a little behind, even if we got our act together in a big way tomorrow we'd still be trailing South Korea by a decade or more.

Our President and FCC Chairman like talking about the many benefits of broadband and the need for America to have some of the world's best broadband infrastructure, yet they almost never talk about the significance of fiber deployment relative to achieving this infrastructure and realizing all these benefits of broadband.

We must make sure they don't ignore the contrast between South Korea's ambitions and our own underwhelming reality. If we are really serious about wanting to lead rather than follow, then South Korea's 1Gbps announcement combined with this National Broadband Map needs to be the catalyst that lights the fire for America to start getting serious about delivering the broadband infrastructure our innovators need to compete in the global economy.

After endless hand wringing over the purpose and process of the national broadband mapping effort, we finally have some results to consider. Released last week, the National Broadband Map is the culmination of $300 million worth of investment and more than a year's work by all 50 states.

So what fruits have all this labor born? A pretty map with some basic features that falls way short of what our country needs.

When you first get into the map things look kind of nice. The site's reasonably well laid out, the results of searching for broadband availability at your address appear robust, and everything seems to fit together nicely. But the story changes as you drill down into things.

For starters, the performance of the site is inconsistent. Pages can take a while to load and searches don't always run right. This likely has at least something to do with too many people trying to use it at the same time, but it's still a frustration I'm likely not alone in having.

In terms of the data itself, it's hard not to feel like it's really incomplete and somewhat inaccurate.

Right off the bat you'll notice that they don't seem to distinguish between business vs. residential broadband. There's also no discussion of shared vs. dedicated bandwidth. They do distinguish between "wired" and "wireless" but there's no mention of a distinction between fixed and mobile wireless broadband. So it's hard to get a handle on what they even mean by "broadband" in terms of what the map's supposed to be showing.

Then when I type in my address in Lafayette the results I get raise even more questions. For example, they cite "Lafayette City Parish Consolidated Government" as a provider (when it should be LUSFiber) but the only services they cite are 100Mbps-1Gbps. In actuality, the highest residential service LUSFiber offers is 50Mbps, though you can get a 100Mbps service, and the only 1Gbps service they offer is on their dedicated carrier-class network, not their shared residential network. So here's a specific example of how the map seems to be confusing business vs. residential broadband.

I also wonder why the map doesn't list all the service tiers for each provider. What good is knowing the top speed available if I don't require that much bandwidth? Why couldn't this map have shown each level of service?

Making matters worse is the next listing that appears is Cox Communications offering 50-100Mbps. I just checked their site and the fastest residential service Cox offers is 50Mbps, yet I know they offer business service at speeds beyond 100Mbps. So how'd the map come up with this range of 50-100Mbps?

The listing for AT&T; cites a range from 6-10Mbps. Again I check the provider's site, and again I find the same discrepancy: the top service they're advertising at my address is 6Mbps, and I don't know where the 10Mbps is coming from.

Confusing me even further is that they included a company called Xfone in the listings that I've never heard of before. I've tried to find out if they offer me service online but it's not entirely clear on their site if they do. I had thought they were likely riding AT&T;'s DSL line to do this as I don't think they have any significant network infrastructure in town, especially in residential areas, but they list Xfone's service as being available at 10-25Mbps. Also if they were riding AT&T;'s DSL pipes then there are likely others that should be listed here as well.

One of the most upsetting things about these results is that they bury information about upload capacity. The main results page doesn't even acknowledge that there's a distinction to be made. It's only once you click on a provider you get to see what that upload capacity is. It's as if they don't think upload capacity is all that important. And yet again I'm finding inconsistencies between the data in this map and that available on providers' public websites.

Another missing piece of information is something that many others have already pointed out, namely the lack of any data about the price of service. The map's tagline is "How connected is my community?" but you can't answer that question fully without knowing how expensive service is. Some providers could claim they offer 1Gbps to every building, but if the service is too expensive for anyone to afford can we really claim that community's connected?

And, not surprisingly given the many other missing data points, there's no mention of usage restrictions or bandwidth caps with any of these services, which can make a dramatic difference as to how consumers can actually use these pipes.

While there are more shortcomings I can cite in other areas of the map (like why don't they have links back to the sites of providers?!), the question that I keep coming back to is: what's the point of this map?

Do we want it to be able to inform policymakers about if their communities are served by broadband? Well it fails at that by leaving out price, downplaying upload capacity, and relying on questionable data.

Do we want it to be able to inform consumers to make better broadband decisions to create a more robust broadband marketplace? Well it fails there too by leaving out price, downplaying upload capacity, and any information about usage restrictions.

The harsh reality of this map is that we've spent $300 million in taxpayer dollars on a map that at best really only shows what top-end speeds broadband providers are claiming they can deliver.

With no distinction between business and residential, no discussion of shared vs. dedicated, no mention of usage restrictions and bandwidth caps, nothing about the cost of service in total and per Mbps, all the focus being on advertised speeds vs. actual speeds being realized by customers, and no effort made to tout the importance of upload capacity, I'm really not sure what the point of this whole exercise was.

Hopefully future iterations of this map can address these shortcomings, but in the meantime I think the best we can hope to get out of this map is to have at least a little more insight into the areas of the country with no service, and to have a straw man to beat on when it comes to what not to do when trying to build a national broadband map.

Netflix Proves America's Broadband Inadequacies

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Netflix, purveyor of DVDs by mail and increasingly streaming video over the Internet, has released data highlighting the broadband capabilities of their users, and the results are grim.

While generally speaking US broadband providers are delivering something resembling their promised peak speeds, where they're coming up short are their sustained speeds.

The peak vs. sustained issue gets back to the fact that almost all providers sell broadband at an "up to" speed. So when you pay for 5Mbps service, they're not saying you're going to get 5Mbps all the time. Instead they're promising that sometimes your service will get as high as 5Mbps.

With many Internet applications, having broadband speeds vary isn't a big deal, like downloading a large attachment to an email. But with Internet applications like streaming video it's the sustained speed that arguably matters more than the peak.

This being said, the delivery of Internet video has evolved to overcome the limitations of "up to" broadband services through capabilities like variable bitrate streaming. What these kinds of technologies can do is adjust the bitrate (essentially the resolution or picture quality) of the video based on how much bandwidth is available.

So you may start out watching a video in HD at 5Mbps, but then when your available bandwidth drops the picture quality will worsen so that your stream doesn't stop and start getting all herky jerky.

What this means is that if you want to be able to watch a movie in HD on the Internet through Netflix, you don't just need broadband with a peak of 5Mbps (their HD video's encoded at 4.8Mbps), you need broadband that can sustain a 5Mbps connection. And this is where the results of Netflix's analysis turn grim.

What they've shown is that NONE of the major US broadband providers are delivering a sustained 5Mbps connection.

Now, I do have to admit that this isn't necessarily a surprise. The business model of residential broadband is based on being able to oversubscribe a backhaul connection to the Internet to make the cost of bandwidth more affordable to end users. Plus there are a number of other factors that could lower the sustained bandwidth being realized by a Netflix user, even basic things like someone else being in the same house on the same connection doing something else at the same time.

But I think it's a mistake to downplay the significance of these findings. The reason why is that there's a whole new class of applications that will require high rates of sustained bandwidth in order to work, the best example of which is videoconferencing.

There are no work arounds to delivering a high quality videoconferencing experience. With movies you can just have people download instead of stream it, so the sustained throughput is less relevant. But with a videoconference you need for both ends of that signal to be able to have adequate sustained bandwidth to support high quality video being send to and from each user.

Currently HD videoconferencing really only works on business-class broadband that has quality of service guarantees so that it can have enough sustained bandwidth to deliver a rock solid two-way video stream. But if we want to move those capabilities into the home, we need a broadband infrastructure capable of delivering sustained throughput.

One of my biggest fears is that our policymakers in DC and in state capitols across this nation don't understand this simple fact. They think that if they can get 5Mbps to people, that's good enough. But what they fail to recognize is that just getting service that delivers a peak of 5Mbps isn't good enough. What we need is broadband that's capable of sustaining those kinds of speeds.

What this Netflix data shows is that we're still a long way away from having that kind of robust broadband infrastructure in America. And this should frighten anyone who cares about the future of this country as the next generation of Internet apps will require networks capable of sustaining bandwidth.

So if we want to be a global leader in 21st century Internet innovation, we're going to need leadership to come from somewhere on making sure that our infrastructure is delivering the capacity needed to support this kind of innovation.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from February 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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