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Mix Magazine

This installment of The Bitstream column appeared in the February 2001 issue of Mix Magazine.

The Bitstream

This column discusses broadband internet access…

A Broad & Deep Need For Speed

Faster, cheaper, everything you always wanted…in a common carrier. Broadband, soon to be retired buzz word of the year gone by. Not as fashionable as WAP, but infinitely more important. Not as cheap as POTS, but essential nonetheless to modern business. Oh, yeah…and it’s not the savior of man, woman or engineering kind, either.

The first thing to remember: broadband is just another distribution method. Second thing to remember: e-Business is just business. Whether it’s DAM (digital asset management), VPNs, or entertainment, the internet is changing the first world and broadband is changing the ’net, but not in as fundamental way as some would think. The telegraph started us on this instant communication road and broadband is just a natural extension.

In 1992, some renegades from The Ranch started EDnet, the grandpa of virtual tie line services. They used ISDN, the only reasonably priced digital service available from the telcos at that time. ISDN was too costly for widespread adoption and never made significant inroads here in the US. A basic business SDSL account provides 12 times the bandwidth of a similarly priced ISDN account. A single channel of raw 48/24 requires 1.152 Mbps, and two channels of 44.1/16 sucks up 1.4112 Mbps. With a symmetrical, 1.5 Mbps, always–on SDSL connection, phoning in your part doesn’t seem so lame. The investors of Rocket Network are trembling with anticipation.

Let’s talk about the current technologies…Right now, symmetrical broadband access to the ’net is really valuable only to select businesses, such as multinationals with far flung satellite offices. Media moguls, like ourselves, are a small but often motivated group that could also benefit from broadband services. Trouble is, most of us don’t get paid enough to afford industrial strength versions.

The Contenders…

Cable

In some outlets, cable is the only way you can get broadband service. Several cable providers are starting to aggressively price their services, targeting corporate users in addition to the home accounts that we’ve all heard about. Like the dangling participle on my previous sentence, broadband via cable has one glaring problem—the dreaded shared bandwidth. With half a dozen subscribers in a neighborhood, life is good as the fixed bandwidth available is divvied up only a few ways. As more and more subscribers tap in, however, individual service degenerates as the aggregate bandwidth is sliced wafer thin. Just thing what video over IP would do! [As competitive pressure has increased from competing broadband services, cable providers have gone turtle and instituted increasingly onerous packet sniffing and traffic exclusion policies. For brain–dead consumer broadband, cable fits the bill but woe unto those who expect true WAN services from their cable guy. – OMas]

Wireless

My cell phone is a WAP–enabled device that works great as a digital phone, which isn’t saying much. It’s supposed to be “free and clear” but boy, can you hear the compression artifacts. Anyway, it has a web minibrowser, which I never use due to two factors: exorbitant cost and absurd display. Imagine getting deeply involved with the wireless internet when your staring at a screen the size of a brazil nut. That about sums up the current state of wireless broadband, costly and quirky.

Currently, there is practical broadband wireless, and it comes in two distinct flavors. So called fixed wireless applications, where the transceivers are nailed down, are projected to be a high growth area of broadband services. One approach has targeted MANs or metro area networks, where fat connections between buildings in a campus setting are desired but digging up the lawn to plant some fiber isn’t. The other approach is more akin to some current digital TV services: use a satellite. These services, aimed at the over 20 million folks outside the reach of fibre, cable or copper, will be challenged by rural electric utilities that will offer AC power and broadband into your house over the same wire.

G3 or third generation wireless protocols promise seemingly infinite bandwidth anywhere. In reality, migration costs will limit adoption to those who really need such services. Once better standards emerge and consumer products mature, wireless delivery will become another specialized player in the overall information dissemination fabric.

DSL

DSL is the winner in the middle time frame, with reasonable cost for both provider and consumer as long as you’re physically close to your local telco switch. A significant feature of all business DSL accounts is a static IP address. This means that your company has a permanent address on the Web, which in turn means you can host an ftp or web site in–house.

The content: data, it’s all data. Just as networked storage will someday all be transported over IP, I’ll hazard a guess that even a nice reuben sandwich will someday be delivered via IP packets. Just kidding, though it seems that way at times. Eventually, IP traffic will carry everything, both block and file–based data, around the world.

The emerging 10Gigabit Ethernet standard is shaping up as the bridge between LANs and MAN/WANs. 10GigE explicitly incorporates QoS (Quality of Service), a feature not inherent in the PSTN network, and vital to the continued growth of broadband. Interestingly, general adoption of 10GigE should foreshadow the eventual retirement of reliable but expensive ATM, which has been the only way to provide WANs and MANs with guaranteed QoS.

The catalyst for widespread adoption may not be, gasp, surround audio but good ol’ low bandwidth voice communication. Since disagreements between record companies and CE manufacturers continue to impede the development of a digital content protection standard, music downloads won’t fill up anyone’s bank account anytime soon. Instead, everybody’s frantically vying for a piece of the VoIP action, hoping to cash in on the publics perception of the ’net as a place to go for anything cheap. And money is really the gating factor for broadband. Though fibre to the home will eventually win the war, the required changes to the infrastructure, whether it’s a passel of new photonic DWDM switches at the local exchange, or licenses for wireless spectrum from the government, are horribly expensive. Who’s going to bear those costs? If you said “the end user,”me thinks you’d be right.

Sidebar

Hold on, more networking jargon coming your way…

FTP

Standing for File Transfer Protocol, provides facilities for bidirectional transfers between remote computer systems. FTP is a basic, no nonsense method for moving entire files around the ’net. Several ftp “clients,” as applications that perform this duty are called, provide the valuable ability to pick up a transfer where it left off if the connection fails, a common problem with dialup service.

DWDM

Standing for Dense Wave Division Multiplexing, it is the frequency domain equivalent of time domain multiplexing. DWDM is used by telcos to launch multiple data streams down a fiber, each carried on its own wavelength (or frequency or color , all the same thing) of coherent laser light. This allows one fibre to simultaneously carry many more streams of data than for what it was originally designed, saving upgrade costs.

circuit switched

The Old Way…think Ernestine the operator, patch cord in hand. Switched circuits mean that, at setup time, a connection is made between two parties to complete a “call.” When the call is finished the entire connection structure is broken down to be rebuilt for the next call, a slow and inefficient process.

packet switched

The New Way…all nodes on the network are ”always on,” able to send, receive and forward “packets” of data, small quanta of information framed or “wrapped” in a virtual envelope with address and routing instructions “printed” on the outside.

POTS

Stands for Plain Ol’ Telephone Service, that reliable product we all take for granted.

PSTN

Stands for the public switched telephone network, the PSTN carries our POTS around the world.

QoS

Standing for Quality of Service, QoS is a generic network mechanism that provides some combination of guaranteed throughput, error rate and latency. The current PSTN uses RSVP protocols as a QoS bandaid.

symmetrical broadband

Same speed/bandwidth in both directions, the “S” in SDSL. Less costly ADSL service is asymmetrical, with download speeds far greater than upload speeds.

VoIP

Standing for Voice over IP, it simply means that “telephone” voice traffic is encapsulated within IP packets rather than over traditional switched circuits, with great potential cost savings all around.

VPN

Standing for Virtual Private Network, VPNs provide virtual secure connections over an unsecure public network.

WAP

Standing for Wireless Application Protocol, WAP is a spec defining secure, bidirectional, ’net access via wireless devices, specifically those without keyboards. WAP is not a international standard and will most likely go the way of the dinosaur real soon now.

Bio

OMas is a provider of professional services to the content creation community.