Thursday, November 03, 2005

Broadband Technologies Overview, Local Implications

CED has a nifty, technologically informed, even-handed overview of a wide array of emerging broadband technologies. (Note that this doesn't cover well-established but still mighty cool technologies like standard wifi or ethernet. Not all of these tech standards will make it commercially.) Part of what is gratifying is that the author includes only those technologies that at least have some hope of wide realization. Even better, he distinguishes between fantasy speeds and actually available speeds (which are still pretty much best-case, real throughput will usually be substantially less) and does an amazingly good job of condensing complex matters understandably.

An added attraction is that this is the only place where I've seen a good review of both technologies intended to be used in a wider, public area and those intended to be used in the home or office. It's a useful distinction that is too often overlooked and Baumgartner appropriately places WiFi--even the nascent newer version he reviews--in the home category.

A sample of a relatively obscure technology with sizable relevance for a large wireless carrier in our region:
HSDPA
The concept: HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) is an advanced cellular technology that enhances GSM UMTS-based networks.
Capabilities: UMTS/HSDPA networks initially will support data speeds of up to 3.6 Mbps, and average between 550 kbps and 1.1 Mbps. Cellular operators will leverage those speeds to provide high-quality video applications, interactive gaming and music services, and enterprise applications.
Status: HSDPA deployments are expected to take place with most GSM UMTS-based cellular operators. Cingular plans to roll it out in 15 to 20 markets by year-end 2005.
Ok, I admit, to read that easily you need to have a little background or be willing to dig around to define terms. The point is you are given the tools you need to inform yourself. A nice balance is struck, I think.

My only quarrel is with treating Fiber To The Premises as a single "technology." The other entries are defined by both media and protocol. FTTP is given some interesting subsets but not the sort of full treatment accorded other technologies. But surely my special interests, not shared by the author, have something to do with my disappointment. :-)

It's worth your review. An unsettled question in the new ecology that will be created by LUS' fiber optic project is just which technology LUS will use and how Lafayette's broadband ecology will differ from the US norm as a result of affordable big broadband. The most obvious issue is that the faster wireline technologies being developed to run over traditional cable and twisted phone wire will meet a competitor in fiber that clearly outclasses it. More subtly, even the possibility that technologies will emerge that begin to offer speeds in the lower range of the current fiber technologies will push LUS to build the most capable and flexible system possible from the first.

Most interesting to me at this moment, however, is the role large amounts of cheap bandwidth supplied to the home will play in encouraging the implementation of faster home/office networking. The dirty little secret of home networking technologies is that you almost never get to use even a fraction of the full capacity of the technology that is scattered around your home. I've got an ancient 10/100 meg ethernet router managing two printers, a desktop, and the wireless connection to two laptops and ethernet drops for both laptops. The wireless connection is a 54 meg Apple Airport. Sounds like a lot of speed? It is. It's great for the once-a-month occasion when Layne or I wants the other to check some large job we've got going. But that once a month is the only time I see my local area network (LAN) capacity utilized. I get, in my very best moments, less than 4 megs from my Cox connection. That's 1/25th of the base speed of my LAN and 1/17th of my wireless capacity. I've never bothered to upgrade to gig ethernet (which both laptops support) or considered a cool new wireless setup. I can't use the capacity in my current, outdated, LAN. And the reason is that almost all my work is done over the net and the real limit on the speed I see is my network connection. If I had real broadband I'd upgrade my LAN in a flash...I'd be downloading video much more than I do now and would beef up my local net to shuttle video around the house. I'd go ahead and get VOIP, maybe play with one of those almost-affordable video phones. Folks with different interests and lives than mine might find it suddenly makes sense to set up fancy video chat arrangements, serve out video and podcasts to friends and family, and set up a security system that allowed them to literally watch their house while traveling.

The lack of real broadband to the home is the bottleneck in current networking systems. Even the cheapest home network is 20 times faster than the lousy bandwith that our current suppliers give us. If that bottleneck is broken we could be motivated to do a lot more in the home or office. These are technologies, like wifi, that spread through experience and word of mouth: they're not too interesting until you see friends and colleagues actually doing it...then you get the point, acquire, and use the technology.

At least one home networking technology will definitely get a boost when LUS lights up. LUS has already made it clear that it intends to offer the ability to use HomePlug technology to infuse the electrical system inside the home with the data stream as part of the customer premise equipment that hangs on the wall of your home. That would relieve you from re-wire you home. A small, inexpensive box that plugs into any wall socket would then transfer the data stream to your computer or wireless node. It's not caught on in most parts of the country but LUS making this an option available to anyone will make Lafayette a major center for this underutilized technology.

My guess, and one I've shared with a number of people curious as to how local small businesses might benefit, is that there will be a real market appearing in Lafayette for upgrading homes and small business networks. This involves both the wired and wireless networks themselves and the cool new peripherals that tie everything together. Lafayette's new capacity will create a market that really won't exist in most places in the country. Competition will be local and the potential to test and perfect a business model which can expand to other parts of the country as they finally get real broadband will be great.

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