Friday, July 22, 2005

Signals and Noise on Broadband

(distributed July 11)
Patterns are emerging from some seemingly unrelated recent developments:

Item: After the mass transit bombings in London, what used to be called "man on the street" perspectives provided some of the most vivid news sources. The BBC has long solicited cameraphone images and personal accounts, and this week's events proved the value of this approach as one element in comprehensive newsgathering.

Item: Wasting no time integrating the Keyhole technology, Google launched a free beta of Google Earth, an even more addictive variation on the satellite imagery embedded in Google Maps. In the Wall Street Journal, Walt Mossberg questioned the utility but not the fun and wonderment fueled by the technology. For example, Google Siteseeing, a weblog unaffiliated with the company, gathers readers' harvests of interesting (for whatever reason) images from the air: shadows of airplanes about to land, smoke plumes, college campuses with giant initials on nearby hillsides, Bill Gates' house. The site has proved so popular it's had to rehost onto commercial-grade infrastructure. (For lots more on this theme, see the coverage of O'Reilly's Where 2.0 conference:

Item: Earlier this month, a carrier in a major European nation announced 3G cellular service over which it will broadcast 42 channels of television to mobile devices. People would be accustomed to this kind of activity in South Korea, but in France? France Telecom is involved along with Orange, giving rise to speculation that national policymakers have decided to emphasize broadband as an economic growth engine.

Item: Apple's new OS, nicknamed Tiger, includes an RSS feedreader within the Safari browser. It wasn't that long ago that people who wanted aggregated feeds needed to install and understand scripting languages. Bloglines changed that, but Tiger appears to be the cleanest implementation to date: I've heard of people upgrading only for this one feature.

Item: After MTV's North American feed of the Live 8 performances was interrupted by ads - midsong - music fans were delighted to see AOL open up a nearly complete video archive of six venues' performances. Apple's Quicktime format is supported, but not Firefox; in Internet Explorer, the viewer is treated to annoying Microsoft ads.

Conclusion 1: Diversity is good. Even without worries of terrorist attacks, viruses, and tightly coupled grids that may or may not have adequate bulkheads to prevent cascading failure (as in the US-Canada power failure of two years ago), convenience and basic prudence suggest that heterogeneous communications channels make a lot of sense. Anyone who switches to sole reliance on voice over IP, the cable company, cellular, instant messaging, or anything else risks total lights-out, as London residents discovered this week. (According to the Wall Street Journal, officials decided against shutting down the cellular networks; the lack of service was apparently caused by heavy traffic.) The success of AOL undoubtedly spurred MTV's decision to re-broadcast Live 8 without interruption.

Conclusion 2: Innovation is happening from both top down (as in Google Labs) and bottom up. Historically the Web has made it easy to find big news sources, but with RSS, it's similarly simple to find small ones. I'm finding it educational to watch media outlets attempt to include and/or co-opt blogs: the Wall Street Journal regularly includes Glenn (Instapundit) Reynolds in the print paper, while publications all over the map are including various blog voices. It's unclear as to what editorial oversight news-organ bloggers enjoy, how they're paid, and what precedence the "day job" medium has with regard to liability, scoops, retractions, and the like. There's still much to be sorted out here.

Conclusion 3: Broadband makes things happen. Whether it's telemedicine, gaming, or secure transmission of private data, its low broadband penetration means that untapped opportunities abound in the United States. As of March the OECD rated the U.S. 17th out of 30 nations in terms of broadband service cost, but this is deceiving as the U.S. ranks only 6th in average broadband speed: Japan's standard service is merely 12 times as fast (26 MB/sec to 2, with a theoretical limit of 51; fiber to the home is expanding rapidly and delivers 100 MB/sec). In short, U.S. customers pay a lot for service that's only charitably defined as mid-band.

The implications can be found in multiple domains. For example, the recent data thefts are increasingly being reported not from hackers but from boxes of backup tapes falling off the back of trucks. It's an open question whether an employee or customer would rather have her sensitive information carried on MCI fiber or a Fedex van.

Remote work is an even more pressing example: between 1970 and 2002, vehicle miles traveled in U.S. urban areas has tripled. Road mileage has in no way kept pace, and the next thirty years will be worse for congestion: few states can afford to maintain the roads and bridges they already have, much less build more. Broadband promises to help create alternative ways of organizing resources, with Jet Blue's virtual call center (consisting of work-at-home customer service reps) serving as one real-life progenitor.

Other promising signs keep cropping up: on the connection front, services like Sprint's EVDO and Verizon's FiOS support reasonably symmetric speeds up and down in part because the business case for customer uploading (digital photos and the like) is getting harder to ignore. Furthermore, increasingly multi-modal communications media like the Weather Channel on cell phones and Google's purchase of Dodgeball support heterogeneous redundancy. Finally, at the FCC and elsewhere people who can make a difference seem to be raising communication policy to a slightly higher level of import.

One great thing about the current cornucopia of technologies is that some can be deployed very rapidly, to the point where Japan, for example, was able to leapfrog much of the world in a matter of a few years. Who will be the next Korea, the next Japan, the next Sweden? It's no exaggeration to say that the whole world is indeed watching - and, increasingly, contributing to content creation and distribution.