Blogs & Comment

Media missing the point of super-fast broadband

Super-fast broadband isn't just about streaming movies faster. It also opens the door to new technologies.

(Photo: Jacom Stephens)

It’s always good to see the mainstream media paying attention to broadband issues, but at the same time it’s also disheartening to see the wrong questions being asked. Unfortunately, it’s happening on both sides of the Atlantic, with U.K. politicians debating how to build a next-generation network and Google Fiber rolling out in Kansas.

In the U.K., the House of Lords communications committee recently criticized the government’s plan to build fibre broadband out to curbside hubs, then connect to homes via copper wires. The scheme, known as fibre to the node (FTTN), generally results in fast speeds for users, but not as fast as taking the fibre all the way to homes (FTTH). On the upside, FTTN is much cheaper to build than FTTH.

The Lords committee rightly said the plan is not ambitious enough. The government’s intention to give most homes the ability to access speeds of 80 megabits a second by 2015, they said, is looking increasingly out-of-date as other countries (and Google) roll out gigabit connections that are more than a hundred times faster.

In a confused editorial, The Guardian half-supported the Lords’ criticisms by saying that the government’s targets may indeed be too slow, but then questioned why broadband—and especially the super-fast kind—is needed in the first place. “Is fast always the clinching argument? Fast is a means, not an end. Fast—and fibre optic—are choices, not universal boons,” the editorial said.

That’s a good question (more on that in a second), but not when it’s framed by examples of porn, online scams and Twitter trolls, or when broadband is compared to the failed Concorde, which is how the newspaper put it.

The Guardian’s editorial is right to question whether speed is all-important, because it really isn’t. As Canadians are learning, speed isn’t really the big issue after a certain threshold is passed—usage is. Faster speeds may make new uses of the internet possible, but usage limits then curtail how much people can actually utilize those features and services. In many cases, there’s little point to having ultra-fast speeds if they can’t be used.

The reason to push fibre out to households rather than to nodes, then, isn’t just to make those gigabit speeds possible, it’s also to create fatter pipes so people aren’t constrained in how much they can use the Internet, which they will be if copper wires are part of the plan (Update: one network expert tells me that FTTN doesn’t necessitate data caps, although that hasn’t stopped providers of it from enforcing them, especially here in Canada).. The Guardian’s editorial was thus on the right track, but missed this crucial point. The writers can’t be blamed, since here in Canada the CRTC is also barking up that wrong tree.

Things aren’t much better in the U.S., where an op-ed on Forbes proclaimed that Google’s Fiber experiment in Kansas City can’t be used to justify a similar national broadband network. The writer rightly questions what such a network would cost, but then falls into the trap of suggesting that only companies such as Google would benefit from such connectivity:

There’s not really much evidence that speeds above 2 Mbps or so actually improve productivity or economic performance/growth. Sure, they’re great for consumers who want to download movies but that’s not really a justification for a large scale infrastructure program.

It’s correct to say that such “evidence” isn’t easily collected, but there are plenty of estimates and projections. BT, for example, believes that £15 will be added to the U.K. economy for every £1 spent on super-fast broadband, while recent economic growth in countries with advanced networks, such as South Korea, can be at least partially attributed to super-fast connectivity.

More to the point, it’s far more wrong to say that super-fast broadband will only benefit a few select players and not have more wide-spread benefits. Similar criticisms were levied at the U.S. government in the 1940s, when the debate was over whether billions should be spent on building a national interstate highway system. Sure, automakers made zillions when the project went ahead in the 1950s, but today no one can argue that it was a bad idea or that it was money poorly spent.

What will super-fast networks be used for? I can think of at least a few things:

  • Cloud gaming: Services such as Onlive, which stream video games over an Internet connection in much the same way that Netflix does with movies, are already here, but they probably won’t be fully viable until the majority of homes have ultra-fast connections. Such services will largely allow people to get rid of their home consoles and eliminate the need to go to the store to buy games on discs, all of which is good given the increasing complexity of such hardware.

  • Game distribution: More importantly on the supply side, super-fast networks will make it easier for independent game makers to get their creations to the masses. This may be especially vital for Canada, which has thousands upon thousands of game makers, but few big publishers. Should the many foreign publishers in Canada pull up and move out, as they’re doing in British Columbia, there will be many game developers left looking to do their own thing.

  • Higher-definition video: If Internet service providers are already complaining about how all that HD video online is choking up their networks, wait until the inevitable higher-resolution standards such as 4K become commonplace.

  • Holography: Sure, 3D holograms are rather gimmicky right now, but they’re a near-term reality that will have big implications in applications such as medicine, manufacturing and education, not to mention entertainment. There will surely be some pioneer companies that will become the Googles or Amazons of holograms—the only question is, where will they sprout up?

The question applies to all of these potential services and the answer really is: who knows? One thing is for sure: they certainly won’t happen in countries that don’t have super-fast broadband.