Saturday, 20 September 2008

The Future of Broadband

One of the great divides of our time is between classical media sociologists and mathematics. Sociologists offer us 'futurology' based on current social divisions and statistical analysis. Technology evolution is often seen as given out by the 'hand of providence', in all its mystery. The media has, at any given time, an 'agenda' set by conspiracies of human beings. These theories are wrong. They may be wishful thinking for a simple life, but they are not the truth.
In fact, there is no unique future. There are few conspiracies. Our society and media evolution are mathematically 'chaotic' systems. There are large numbers of variables and factors which influence events. The future is defined by an equation with many variables and much 'non-linearity. Everything happens because of a cause and an effect'. The equation of the future has multiple solutions, and one of them will win because of events which may not yet have happened. Trends and tendencies can be spotted, but the precise future cannot be known - at least not until we have very much more powerful computers to solve the equations.

The future, and the present, is much more complex than media sociologists would like to think.
Technology Evolution Can Be Shaped
However, it is not just in mechanisms for societal and media developments that they are wrong. Technological evolution is made by people. The MPEG video technologies, for example, arise because three or four hundred research engineers contribute to it. They do what they think is needed - the author has been part of the MPEG requirements-setting process. They do not look at the impact on society of their work, because no one asks them to, and anyway, they don't know what kind of a world to make.
Yet, a major part of our future society will be influenced and shaped by technology. Marshal McLuhan was correct in his seminal book Understanding Media - the medium is the message. Developments in technology have a much greater influence on society over the long term than any individual items of content carried by the media.
We are in a world where society will be shaped by technology train, yet no one really guides the train, and almost no one thinks they can influence its direction. This is the paradox. But, without solving it, as a second best, we can at least try to see where the juncture in the road ahead are. There seem to be at least three.
The First Great Broadband Crossroads - Open Or Closed?
One of the great crossroads in media lies ahead. One sure thing is that, at least in the developed world, a substantial part of our media consumption needs will be met by broadband connections. The question is which kind of broadband. One of the signposts ahead is for 'closed or walled garden broadband or IPTV" and the other is for 'open garden or Open Internet'.
Operators of wired telephone networks have invested heavily in IPTV, and many hoped it would save the company finances from the human disease of mobile phones. It might have done so, if there were no 'substitutes'. Alas, there are to be substitutes in services offered on the Open Internet. These are called, where media is delivered, 'Internet or Web TV'.
IPTV services operate by charging users a subscription, and making them captive customers with proprietary set-top boxes (STB). But in the Open Internet world, any (old) Internet PC will do the job. Not only are there no subscriptions required, but users have access to millions of services rather than tens of services. More choice, no special receiver, and much lower costs. Which do you think will win?
The Second Great Broadband Crossroads - CDN Or P2P?
IPTV has a higher 'quality of service'. You switch on the IPTV STB and it works straight away. It is a well engineered IP Content Distribution Network, a CDN. In the old world of Open Internet delivery, on the other hand, content could be frustrating and unreliable, largely because of congestion - too many cars on the road and the traffic grinds to a halt. Who needs 'buffering' when you want to watch TV? It too was a CDN, but this time on an open highway.
But this situation seems to be changing. The challenge is to make watching video on the Open Internet an experience just like television. The picture and sound quality must be high and reliable. This will happen with P2P.
One of the ways to make Open Internet more reliable is to use a lot of hard disk storage in the PC to pre-store content, which is there in case you need it. This is one of the tools used by the new media portal 'Joost' (
Probably the real breakthrough technology is 'Peer to Peer' delivery. This technique substitutes for the 'more successful you are, the higher the cost technology we are used to with CDNs and Unicast. In a Peer to Peer system, the user obtains his version of the programme in slices from a large number of other users who have agreed to open up their computer a fraction, to allow the content they have to be taken on to the next user.
This is more than just another technical development. It may transform the whole of media delivery. It may reduce distribution costs of wideband media content to almost zero, and it can be used for any audience size, even if it is worldwide (sociability), at no extra cost. It will make the cost of delivering sophisticated media content by Internet the same as it is for broadcasting. It will mean virtually zero 'marginal cost. This is the stuff that new epochs are made of. But there is one more fork in the road ahead...
The Third Great Broadband Crossroad - Wireless Or Wired?
Go to a 'virtual world' website today. After a while something tells you this is fun but not right. After a while you realize that all the people, the buildings, and the furniture in it are only clunky models. They are puppet human beings, who 'only just' look or move like human beings. There is just nowhere near enough information and detail available. There is nowhere near enough bandwidth.
And wherever you go on the web you see the same thirst for bandwidth. The trend is obvious. We never have enough bandwidth, because applications just keep on growing in sophistication, and video and audio inserts keep on growing. Think how far we have come from a 4kbit/s modem connection to today's 2 Mbit/s DSL - let's say a 500 fold increase in 1 5 years. Why would this trend - forever upwards - stop suddenly and stay where it is? Yet, we are asked to believe it has. This is the belief of those who want to talk governments into selling spectrum from the broadcast bands for wireless broadband services. Any spectrum sold for broadband services will only have a short useful life.
The demand for broadband bit rate goes up and up. Probably to make a 'Second Life' look 'HDTV-real you might need (say) a 140 Mbit/s connection. Is there ever any way different 140Mbit/s signals could be delivered by a digital wireless telephone channel to multitudes of different people all at the same time? There is only a limited amount of space in the airwaves.
Yes, there will be a massive demand for broadband connectivity. Yes, many people will spend their evening using it. But they will all want it at the same time, and they all want a lot of it, so it cannot be done by wireless broadband.
“The future of broadband is fantastic, but it can only be provided by fibre optic connections into every home - never by wireless. Get the back of an envelope and work it out - fibre optic is the only way we will get 140 Mbit/s connections all with different data to millions of people at the same time”.
The future of broadband is fantastic, but it can only be provided by fibre optic connections into every home - never by wireless. Get the back of an envelope and work it out - fibre optic is the only way we will get 140 Mbit/s connections all with different data to millions of people at the same time.
Yes, you can start broadband wireless services, and you may make some money for a bit. Yes, we can use P2P to help distribution of the same content at the same time. But how long will it be before the public demand has outgrown the capacity of the system to deliver? Ten or fifteen years? Then this precious public resource will be lying idle.
There will be a 'cross over point', when wireless broadband runs out of steam. Beyond that you need hybrid fibre coax and fibre optic. In-home networks (in this case wireless) will carry it around the house.
Digital telephones work well because only a few percent of the public wants to use them at the same time. This is not going to be the same with broadband interactive entertainment. In the evening masses of people will want to use it at the same time. Usage patterns for telephones and media entertainment are not the same.
So let's use the broadcast bands for broadcasting - the services that can never suffer from multi-user congestion. The service that is non-exhaustible. Let us use it to provide services which lots of people want at the same time...whether they are HDTV of GIF (for a handheld]...
Above all - governments - please think about future demands and not just about today's needs. Please ask yourself about the future consumption model. Spectrum belongs to all of us - the people. We are entitled to ask that.
The Road Less Travelled
The world faces a number of forks in the road ahead in broadband -wireless or wired, CDN or P2P, and IPTV or Open Internet. Poet Robert Frost suggested that in such circumstances we should take the 'road less travelled' - the one with the greatest risk and greatest unknowns. Maybe that is the most courageous, but personally I would like to make a map first and take it with me.

Cable Networks have an Excellent Future in IPTV
Col K K Sharma
With the acceptance of IPTV recommendations by the Government, a new era of internet dominance in Convergence Field has begun. Although the telecom companies have not yet recognized the importance of cable TV networks in this changed scenario, there is a bright future for the cable operators in providing the IP based services.
Today, the biggest problem faced by the telcos in providing the IPTV services is procuring the 24x7 content, whether TV channels or their own. 
The second major problem they face is the last mile to the consumer. The biggest land line carriers BSNL and MTNL have hardly any last mile worthy of carrying broadband of 2mbps speed. It is a known fact that lakhs of broadband connections provided by them are not working but exist on paper due to poor quality of service. 
The private telcos like Reliance and Bharti have great plans and are using the state of the art equipment with maximum deployment of fiber but again they don’t yet have the numbers to go past the critical mass. 
As the bandwidth requirement will keep increasing every day, they will always lag behind in meeting their commercial targets. Their dominance is in wireless (Mobile) which is not the best solution for broadband. 
Even globally, IPTV has currently seen rather low level of penetration- near 1-5% globally, with Asia Pacific leading at 3% and EMEA and the US at far lower sub 2% and 1.5% respectively. This low penetration is attributed primarily to the combination of availability of service and consumer understanding.
In India, the television industry has grown at a very healthy 21% over the last four years, including 13% in 2007 over the prior year. The key constituent of this revenue is television distribution with a 63% share in 2012.
Cable TV clearly is the king. They already have the content and experience of delivering it to consumers. They have been laying fiber closest to homes in their HFC networks. They are also expert in laying cable the fastest in any environment. Their co-axial cables can carry much higher bandwidth than the telco copper.
It is time for cable operators to take this opportunity and become IPTV operators for at least their video channels. Once successful, many telcos will run after them to carry their other services.


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