Friday, June 11, 2010

Free the Bits

Is there latency in your packet shaping, or are you just glad to see me?

It has been speculated for years that bandwidth providers (that'd be phone and cable companies) in the U.S. are slowing innovation and capacity increases on their networks.  Don't take my word for it, even the conservative Wall Street Journal is finally on board.  Why would they want to do that?  It seems mostly like a waiting game, trying to put off the day when entertainment users can download content as easily as music lovers were able to download mp3's back in the day.   These companies fear the day that their lucrative (and in the case of cable companies, local monopolies) businesses models that have served them so well are changed.   The companies that own the pipelines and distribution are increasingly the companies that own the content,  say NBC/Comcast or Time Warner.

What does that mean, besides the fact the people pay huge cable bills and still cannot pick (and only pay for) exactly what content they want delivered?  Now there's a radical idea, not paying for the Golf Channel because you don't want it.   For one thing, it means that innovation in new media forms are being stifled.  There are people out there with ideas out there that cannot be tried because they just are not feasible given data constraints.  It is in the interest of these companies to keep you passively watching cable TV and at best letting you DVR it so you can watch it on your schedule.  Forget interactivity, forget mob-sourcing, forget just about anything that isn't pretty much just a sickly derivative of the same stuff that's we've been watching for the past 60 years.

This has been a pet peeve of mine for years, especially with regard to decreased innovation.  Why is this important?  Culture is big business in the U.S.  It is a huge export product as well as being a political tool.  Will Hollywood become like GM and lose it's market share and profitability to other foreign producers through willfully slowing innovation and clinging to dying business models in order to control (slowly dwindling) profits?  Remember, in the 1960's it seemed inconceivable that Japanese cars were anything other than oddities to American consumers.   People laughed at the cars, their size and their quality.  With the democratization of media production, isn't there a whole world full of people out there now with their own media creation dreams?

The U.S. currently ranks #28 in Internet access speed and and "is not making significant progress in building a faster network."  The average download speed in Korea is four times faster than it is in the U.S.  And upload speeds, key for interactive media, those are even slower, usually by an order of 2-3X.  How long will consumers raised on interactivity and the belief that they are all media creators be willing to live with that?  And given the recent performance of U.S. mobile broadband providers like AT&T, will the future be more of the same?


bradbell said...

Not surprisingly, it's very similar in the UK. All the incumbents (ISPs, mobile, phone, cable) slow the pace of technological development to ensure not very much changes.

I vividly recall reading a plan from about a decade ago, from a Canadian network research institute (CANARIE), proposing fibre to the home by 2005 - for about the cost of ADSL.

They were talking about delivering 100Mb networking over a publicly owned network - it's just real estate really - with open competition providing services from the network boxes. (There are lots of cities like this, in Sweden, Canada, the US.)

The thinking: networks are the roads for the digital economy. It's basic infrastructure. Fibre is highly redundant. There are robots to install in through the public sewers. Access rights are everything. Maintenance is low.

But Canada seems to have gone the way of the US/UK and decided to let incumbent businesses deliver innovation. And the incumbents make *way* more money going slow. From the point of view of profit, going fast is idiotic. They'd just make themselves obsolete, with little time to figure out how to survive and thrive.

Anyway, 10 years and thousands of pounds later, I am uploading TV commercials for distribution to TV stations: it's a 1Gb file and it takes 6 hours over a 350Kbps line (6Mbps down/0.36Mbps up). Once TV stations download the files, that's it for the internet.

TV isn't delivered via the internet. There are no neighborhood boxes with competing services available. I do not get my phone via the internet. I do not get mobile telephony via the internet. Nor can I log into a desktop environment on a server across town. (We spend 1 entire day per week commuting via the 19th century subway network.)

Apple miraculously gets FCP/iChat to work, but we should be able to do that in HD, just as we should be able to deliver the TV spot for distribution to channels in real time. But I ramble...

It's not that we don't have the technology. The research network was able to deliver 'DVD' movie downloads in 1/4 of a second - 10 years ago. For them, hard disks were considered a bottleneck!

We have the tech. We collectively just don't feel like using it. It's too disruptive - which to the rest of us means, economically powerful and productive.

Craig Mieritz said...

Thank you for the insightful commentary.