HOW CLOSE ARE WE TO THE SEAMLESS, WIRELESS INTERNET? WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES THREATENING UBIQUITY? A SPECIAL CE REPORT CHECKS IN ON THE STATUS OF TELECOM TECHNOLOGY--IN THE U.S. AND AROUND THE GLOBE.
True, we may have come a long, long way from those thankfully bygone days of insufferable 300-baud modem speeds and the woefully congested traffic on the information superhighway resulting in endless downloads for a 10-second soundbyte. But where are the online virtual reality malls? Where is the true interactive television? Where are the instantaneous multi-application transfers?
The truth is, even as countries seem to be defecting to the Internet by the hour and per capita bandwidth demand skyrockets, for all the talk of imminent broadband access, legions of would-be adopters still go without. Carriers vie for global telecom domination, investing in state-of-the-art networks comprised of transcontinental backbones and transoceanic cables, but bandwidth paucity persists. And it's not because the technology isn't there, says Ron Young, vice president of marketing and business development at Yipes, a San Francisco-based Internet service provider. "Everyone under the sun is laying fiber-optic backbones," he says. "At the same time, all the engineers at Lucent and elsewhere are getting more communications through a single strand of fiber with exponential increases. But every piece of traffic has to stop to get through the phone company. The phone company is the bottleneck."
Compared to the hype, today's dial-up connection speeds seem anemic at best. Blame it on the "last mile," or the link between broadband service providers and individual homes and PCs. And whether ultra-capacity pipes number in the tens or the thousands, without the physical link between you and a broadband service provider, you're lucky to get 56K from an analog modem. So basically, you can live right off the freeway, but if there's no nearby exit ramp, you'd better get out the map.
Bottlenecks and Roadblocks
The good news is that broadband is available in select areas; the bad news is that "select" translates to "very few." Bandwidth-intensive applications- such as streaming video, streaming audio, and videoconferencing--require very big pipes, and 56K modems just don't cut it.
"If you're running a business and trying to transmit data in an ambitious way--videos of plants or a video teleconference--bandwidth becomes an issue," says Frank O'Connell, former CEO of Gibson Greetings and Reebok.
"We're 18 months to two years off in terms of there being sufficient bandwidth for streaming video," says O'Connell, currently a director of electronic greeting company Egreetings Network. "That's what's holding personal penetration of the, consumer down, PCs in the household down."
The reason for the delay is not that backbone links can't handle it; rather, there are gigantic tracts of land to be tamed in the last mile, the final relay from the service provider to the customer's location.
"Waiting for something to download is about the local access network. People are building humongously long and difficult submarine cables that cross the mighty oceans, but in actual fact, it's the network down the street that's the problem," says Stephen Young, author of International Bandwidth 2000 and principal consultant at Ovum, a research and consulting company specializing in IT and telecoms. Which is why the upgrade truck may tarry still longer before treating you to the more spacious traveling quarters of DSL (digital subscriber line), cable-modem, or fixed-wireless technologies.
"There is going to be plenty of capacity on the intercontinental routes, we've seen it on the transatlantic routes and now the transpacific route is following," says Young. "But the real problem remains the local access...