Beyond Broadband

What is the status of broadband rollout and how will it affect government and society?

by / April 16, 2002
I recently asked my 15-year old daughter what was happening with Napster. "It's dead," she said, "so I'm on BearShare now." I asked her how long it took to download a song with our PC and 56K modem. She rolled her eyes. "With our computer," she said indignantly, "about 20 minutes. I start downloading it, then I play the first part of it, then play the first part again, and then play it again."

For most people with a dialup Internet connection, 56K is top of the line. However, according to my daughter, many of her friends have DSL or cable broadband. With their computers, songs download faster than they play. Goodbye frustration, hello happy kid playing obscure garage-band tunes.

In the grand scheme of things, the speed at which a song downloads from the Internet can seem trivial. But Napster started at universities, pointed out Alcatel's James Fausch, since universities provided high-speed LAN access to the Internet. Broadband was the catalyst, and Napster created an entirely new social, legal and communications phenomenon.

It's a mistake, however, to assume that broadband speed is of interest to only the young and the restless. "Time will become the world's most precious commodity," said a recent article in The Futurist. "American workers already spend about 10 percent more time on the job than they did a decade ago."

For anyone operating on Internet time, waiting in line or waiting for a file to download can be frustrating.

Elected officials have also begun to realize the potential of high-speed data, voice and video. The introduction to the Broadband Internet Access Act of 2001, for example, states: "The Internet has been the single greatest contributor to the unprecedented economic expansion experienced by the United States over the last eight years. Increasing the speed that Americans can access the Internet is necessary to ensure the continued expansion."

Sponsors of the bill range from 80-year old Sen. Jesse Helms to Senate newcomer Hillary Clinton.

In order to mine the benefits of broadband, however, barricades must first be overcome. DSL, satellite and cable broadband rollout has been slower than expected, some of the more entrepreneurial broadband providers have gone under, and the Baby Bells have poured their revenues into investor dividends instead of research and development, then waited for their competitors to go away. In addition, the price of broadband service is rising, contrary to the familiar computing principle of "wait a few weeks and it will cost less."

Finally, the economics of broadband deployment favor cherry-picking densely populated and affluent areas, bypassing poor and rural customers, which may undermine the eventual impact. "A lot of discussion around this issue of unlimited broadband always assumes ubiquity in deployment," said Phil Burgess of the Center for the New West "because that's when a lot of interesting things begin to happen."

"Interesting things" may be an understatement. For years, we've had visions of virtual workplaces, courts, meetings, schools, medical treatments, etc. But lack of bandwidth has been the speed bump, if not the roadblock. Remember the videophones of the mid 1990s? They were plug-and-play on standard telephone lines but the picture was grainy, the color bad and they looked more like a slide show than a video. The units cost nearly $1,000 and, while the idea was good, lack of bandwidth made them a commercial flop.

Today, with Web cameras and broadband, parents at work can look in on their child's day-care provider, vacationers can check up on their homes and students in distant states can have face to face conversations with their parents.

Two different projects - The Next Generation Internet and Internet2 - are at work developing high-speed Internet applications and infrastructure for the future. Some of their projects sound like science fiction.

For example, "tele-immersion" is an Internet2 project and a second cousin to the "holodeck" of Star Trek episodes. Objects are presented in three dimensions, enabling interactions similar to those in real life. While "whiteboarding" is technically possible today, tele-immersion takes it to a new level. Possible applications include medical procedures, such as remote surgery and radiography. A physician at the Mayo Clinic, for example, could perform surgery by robot on a soldier in the Middle East. Early trials of such a system required hard-wired fiber, but wireless broadband would enable remote use.

"Virtual L.A" is another Internet2 project, which modeled a 20-square-mile section of Los Angeles in three dimensions. Viewers can "fly" through the streets, see how housing developments would look, move trees, inspect subway crawl spaces, check out a hotel room's view, click on a restaurant to see the menu, and more. UCLA's Internet2 project has rebuilt a virtual ancient Rome. In the future, students may visit lost worlds of antiquity, walk through the streets of ancient Athens or Machu Picchu, visit a typical home, hear the sounds and see the people. Three-dimensional Internet models will become time machines of sorts, accessed through broadband and manipulated by computers.

Both public and private sectors are busy with the economic, technical, legal and competitive issues of broadband rollout. Dave Ballard is president of the National Association of State Telecommunications Directors and director of the Governor's Office for Technology in Kentucky. He is responsible for the Kentucky Information Highway, an ATM network that links 1,350 schools in 176 school districts as well as over 75 colleges and universities.

"Our governor wants Kentucky equal to the national per capita income average within a 20-year time span," said Ballard. "He thinks the key to getting there is education and access to education."

Ballard said the state's Kentucky Virtual University helps give poor and rural areas access to education. "There are courses online," he said. "In order to be able to compete with the universities for these types of students we've got to have that high-speed bandwidth."

But access to broadband alone is not enough, said Ballard. "I think the bigger issue is getting people to understand the value of broadband connectivity - showing them how it's going to improve their life."

Darryl D. Anderson; past president of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, said dialup is no longer adequate for municipalities. Anderson, executive director of the Washington, D.C., Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, said, "You're just not going to have the patience to click and wait for things to chunk along."

Anderson said D.C. has been working on training government staff with video over the Net, and his office streams two 24-hour-a-day video channels through the district's website.

But broadband may create additional problems for government. "Bandwidth will make problems happen faster for those who are not ready" said Janet Caldow, director of IBM's Institute for Electronic Government. "With unlimited bandwidth, you're not going to have the Internet to blame any more, all the stress will be on your technical infrastructure."

Caldow said more bandwidth would require agencies and departments to look at managing an enterprise. "Everything you've got - a data center or a distributed network of Web servers - ought to be under a common management system," she explained. "And right now nobody's thinking about that. They're only looking at the traditional data center and this other stuff is just kind of growing organically out there. You're only as strong as your weakest link."

In a few years, today's 15-year-old impatient downloaders of music will become voters, constituents and customers of government. Many of them will become government employees. They will be long-time Internet power users and lining up in a government office to fill out a form or get a dog license will seem unfathomable. Crawling downloads will be unacceptable. They will expect online transactions to be fast, simple and one-stop. They are unlikely to appreciate the hard work that went into building an enterprise system. Instead, they will demand instant information, high-speed transactions and superlative service.