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February 28, 2011 9:06 AM

Physical Media's Demise Can't Happen Without Lots Of Bandwidth

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.

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