Thursday, September 02, 2004

Experts endorse broadband network

I'm sorry that I had to miss this event. But the article in the Advertiser at least hints at some of the potentials of truly broadband networks. Just to be utterly clear they weren't talking about the potential Lafayette Fiber to the Home plan. Not exactly. And the Advertiser story could be a lot clearer about that. But they were talking about the value of truly broadband capacity (as opposed to the meager sort of broadband we currently receive as typical residential and business users).

Some Background:

A little background on this story is useful. The reference point for the evening was the national "LambdaRail" system:
You might recall some hoopla about Lambda Rail back in June. Back then it was written up as a coup by Louisiana and other gulf states to bring the "Transcontinental Railroad" of the future through our state and region. The emphasis then was on the universities and research. That was not the emphasis at the Lafayette meeting. The emphasis there was on business. That emphasis isn't a mistake—it's a simple extrapolation of what has happened in the past. A press release describes that history and promise:
NLR is probably the most ambitious research and education networking initiative since the ARPANET and the NSFnet, both of which led to the commercialization of the Internet. In the spirit of these great success stories, NLR strives to again stimulate and support innovative network research to go above and beyond the current incremental evolution of the Internet. The results of such endeavors are expected to facilitate further commercial development and creation of new technologies and markets, thereby stimulating economic development and contributing to U.S. national competitiveness.
To give you a taste of the sorts of speed they are starting with ogle this:
[LambdaRail] is lighting the first fiber pair with an optical Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM) network capable of transmitting up to 40 simultaneous light wavelengths (‘lambdas’ or ‘waves’) each at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps).
400 Gps per pair. In the initial run. Lord-a-mercy as my grandmother's folks might have said when confounded by some strange new object in their midst. That kind of capacity boggles the mind. Or it boggles mine...but not, thankfully, the presenters at the Zydetec presentation.

A pause for reflection:

What is nifty about this is that all that capacity passes through Lafayette. It's being built on top of buried, unused ("dark") fiber along Interstate 10. Further, the Lambda rail system won't need all of that dark fiber though it will connect and upgrade a portion of it. Various governmental entities have traded their rights of ways to access to that fiber. The state, for instance, owns a nice chunk of the so-called dark fiber. At the time that the deal went in it must have seemed like a good deal for everyone. The companies laying the fiber got off cheap on the rights of way. And the state got its own (potential) backbone. Then in came politics and the dotcom crash and a lot of that fiber went unlit. Fiber was simply overbuilt in the heady days of the dotcom boom and constant improvements to the system let fewer strands carry more. But that wasn't the only reason for our unused fiber: a concerted effort by some folks (well by BellSouth, actually...I'm sure you are shocked.) to prevent the state and our universities from taking advantage of that fiber and ceasing to pay for their current telecom services. It's Real Money. So much of the fiber remains dark...but it remains and when LamdaRail results in a new generation of long-haul capacity anyone can go back to that buried glass and install the new generation of components. Any uncontrolled strands mean potential competition for the major players—and potentially very inexpensive resources for local communities and businesses.

But that opens up a new "last mile" problem: short of buying your own strands and siteing your new high-tech business on top of I-10 how do you get to that capacity? You don't want to build your own information superhighway. You just want a really good on-ramp to one nearby. That's the way it works with our current interstates and the fight over where the on-ramps are and which communities get one is always a vibrant political battle. Ah chillens...that's where Lafayette and our little Fiber for the Future initiative come in. Not only is Lafayette proposing to build a grand cable TV/phone/Internet system for the citizens of Lafayette—it is also setting up all of Lafayette as prime information-age real estate with frontage on a major interstate off-ramp. And it will give the execs, employees and kids of those high-tech companies that come here connections to rival those that they have grown used to at work. For that group of folks a healthy jolt of real, fiber-based broadband access is likely to be a major quality of life issue. There will be very few communities that can offer that amenity. And then you can throw Zydeco, Cajun bands, some gumbo, crawfish, and people who like to smile into the offer. What's not to like?

On to the story...

Ok, back to actual content: Now I'd be the first to admit that there is an odd tinge to the article in the Advertiser—you get phrases like "grid computing," " global overlay network" "planetary scale networks," "collaborative intelligence," and "the human input-output problem." All that may sound at once forbiddingly geekish and a bit spacey and it all is, at least a little. But these folks are struggling to find ways to describe the changes they see coming and are using red-letter concepts try and help others to see it too.

But the old teacher in me thinks its just easier to go back to basics to make things like this sensible and here's my take: its all about the rate of information flow and the quantity of resources available. Rate of flow is pretty simple: kbps or mbps—kilo or mega bites per second— are good examples: they are the information equivalent of miles per hour. Quantity as used here is equally commonsensical: its the sheer amount of what is available.

Here's the kicker: speed and resources interact. The interstate makes Opelousas just down the road. Breaux Bridge is just next door. Youngsville and Broussard are, for all practical purposes part of "Greater Lafayette." The speed and capacity of the connecting roads bring us all closer together. And they multiply the resources available to all. The best small engine repair place I know of is halfway to Opelousas. But my proximity to Evangeline Thruway and the interstate make it easy to get to and easy to use. Quality of service gets higher, the best places do better, there are more choices, and if one place is closed an alternative is relatively easy to get to. You get the chance to make better decisions. It's just easier to get things done. To coin a little phrase: Speed builds.

This is exactly the pattern these geekish and slightly spacey folks are seeing for the future of broadband. Computers that used to be far apart can suddenly be used as if they were one hugely more powerful computer (grid computing). The resources practically available for ready use by one computer are much, much greater. If one computer goes down you can just go use the resources of another (global overlay network). You get to choose the best resources so quality rises, the best resources do better, and you get a chance to make better decisions. It looks like you are smarter (collaborative intelligence). It's just easier to get things done. So people and businesses move to those places because they can accomplish more there.

Speed builds.

And we ought to build speed.

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