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Why We Need Gigabit Networks

There is currently a great deal of debate regarding the need for gigabit networks. There are still a lot of voices, often led by conservative political and media people, who argue that hardly anyone needs such networks. Unfortunately for them, however, their arguments are totally flawed. And who are they, anyway, to set the tone for such new infrastructure.

Isn’t necessity the mother of invention? We didn’t need bikes, typewriters, cars, faxes, copiers, PCs or smartphones until we (or our ancestors) saw them and said, ‘Gotta have that’. Surely it is better to anticipate progress than to deny it, and an infrastructure based on FttH is one of those safe bets.

The problem is that broadband speed is absolutely the wrong debate. The quality of the broadband network has very little to do with speed. I am sure that some of you are yawning as I repeat the elements that comprise a quality national broadband network: high capacity, high reliability, low latency, ubiquity, user affordability to services such as e-health, e-education and entertainment, security and privacy. You will see that in the above list, speed is conspicuous by its absence.

However, if we do want to talk speeds it is important to remember the following:

  • downstream speeds = entertainment
  • upstream speeds = economic development

Yet I have seldom heard those conservative voice allude to this interpretation of a broadband network.

If we follow the logic of the FttH deniers, there would be no need to build 4-lane freeways, as nobody drives 200km on them, even though it is something that would easily be possible.

Similarly we don’t build broadband networks for speed; we build them for capacity, safety, reliability, etc. Have you ever heard a road engineer or the Minister for Transport talk about road speeds when they develop their road infrastructure plans? Certainly it would be one of the considerations, but it is of such little importance that it is never the subject of debate, at least never to the extent that politicians debate broadband speeds.

Or, according to that same logic, why build cars with a capacity of 240km/hour? I will never ever drive that fast, but when I need to overtake, I very much appreciate a bit of extra speed.

A final example—if you look at the amps panel in your house it is most unlikely that you would ever reach that level of usage, but having that extra capacity supplies a degree of electricity quality and reliability that will come in handy during those ‘5%’ situations when you actually do need a high level of capacity.

So, back to broadband network… very few people, if any, will ever make continual use of gigabit networks. However it is very handy if you do need extremely high-speed access—in that 5% of cases. And it will also be appreciated in times of high traffic, in the same way that we appreciate 4-lane freeways during peak hour traffic.

As only fibre networks will be able to deliver such a quality yet conservative politicians and their media seldom talk about the need for such networks. But it is being talked about in places where broadband is not such a politicised issue, and several cities in the USA are building gigabit networks for that purpose. These will truly be the smart cities of the future. Interestingly we now also see incumbent telcos building such networks in Asia, Europe and North America.

Finally, I am certainly not arguing that all of this should be made to users free of charge. What I am saying is that we need to build the infrastructure in such a way that these qualities are available. In some cases this will be for the benefit of the country (economy, healthcare, education, etc). In other circumstances it would simply be a commercial consideration—if you want high capacity you must be prepared to pay for it. And there is a market for that. As one of my colleagues Andrew Odlyzko noted: ‘The primary purpose of infrastructure is to satisfy human impatience’.

Since human impatience has no limits, nor does the size of the objects we might like to transmit, there is no absolute limit on the speeds that are likely to be wanted.

Doc Searls added to this: ‘Impatience concerns time. We are born with an unknown sum of it, and have to spend it all before we die.’

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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