Why Fiber is "Moving to the Curb"
Principal Technologist, The Harrow Group
It's about speed of
course. And much more...
If you have cable modem
service that works well, you already have download speeds
of two to three megabits/second which is nothing to sneeze
at; most operations, including reasonably sized file downloads
such as demo programs, complete quickly enough that you rarely
find yourself in the tedious 'wait mode' of dial-up modem
days. (We won't explore here the issue of cables' relatively
paltry upload speeds, often between 128 to 256 kilobits/second,
but even that is often fast enough for typical users).
So why would we want more bandwidth? The answer is because
history continuously demonstrates that we're NEVER satisfied
with any such bottleneck -- we WILL develop applications that
will make current DSL or cable modem service seem as slow
as a dial-up modem feels today.
One obvious application
for higher-speed connections is video-on-demand, which could
send the "video rental" industry following the road
of buggy whips. I can well imagine a time not too many years
away when kids can't imagine having to get someone to drive
them down to the "tape store" to get a movie for
the evening's party -- they'll just download the movie (hopefully
from legitimate sources that charge less per "rental"
and make up for it in volume).
Think that's improbable? When was the last time your kid harassed
you to take her to the mall to listen to the latest music?
THAT sea change owed its start to Napster, but legitimate,
affordable online sales have been very slow in coming as the
music industry thought they could re-close Pandora's Box.
Of course, as always happens when a new technology changes
the rules, they were wrong.
(The success of iTunes
and other new commercial online music services now demonstrate
that many people are indeed quite willing to pay a reasonable
fee to legally download music; I'll bet the music industry
wished they'd been proactive in online sales, rather than
letting free file-sharing networks put them at the bottom
of a hill they now have to re-climb).
It's Not Just Music Anymore!
This sort of change
dramatically altered the music industry, and new technologies
are now beginning to affect the movie/video industry as well.
New compression technologies such as MPEG 4, DivX, and more
now make it viable (if slow) to download entire movies at
Which is why I think
(hope) that the movie industry, learning from the music industry
before it, will be more aggressive in offering what their
customers want, in the way they want it, and at a price they're
willing to pay. The movie industry's incentive is that this
sure beats the Napsterization of yet another industry.
Today's saving grace
is that -- you guessed it -- while cable and DSL connections
can download movies, the compressed movies' file
sizes are still large enough, compared to today's bandwidth,
that downloading a movie is a non-trivial effort. For this
application, users are "behind the bandwidth hump"
My cable system recently finished
a major upgrade, switching from an old and noisy and troublesome
coaxial cable backbone to "fiber to the neighborhood."
Now, a fiber run terminates within a few hundred feet of most
homes, where its signals are converted to coaxial cable for
that last "tenth-mile." It works great, by comparison
with the old days; instead of a constant 20% or greater packet
loss and generally ridiculous latency times from the old cable
modem service, packet loss or high latency of ANY amount is
now an occasional oddity. YES!
But even though the
cable company spent millions of dollars to upgrade the system,
this is NOT (yet) "fiber to the curb," which could
have delivered perhaps 100 megabits/second (12.5 mega bytes
/second) to me instead of the current 3 megabits/second
(375 kilobytes /second). That 33-times enhanced speed
would have made movies-on-demand practical, if still somewhat
slow over today's infrastructure.
The cable company
may, though, have been smart in delaying, because unsurprisingly,
"fiber to the curb" technology is certainly getting "riper."
As early as 1998, the Silicon Valley neighborhood Community
Center has made fiber-to-the-curb service of up to 100 megabytes/second
available to both homes and businesses (http://www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/morgue/news/1998_Aug_19.FIBERNET.html).
Impressive. Yet if 100 megabytes/second
“fiber to the curb” service isn't fast enough for you, NTT
has just announced a "new technology [that] will
increase communication speeds tenfold, to one gigabyte/second
... for fiber optic services...!" (http://www.gridtoday.com/03/0616/101564.html)
They anticipate that this service will be ready to hit the
road (so to speak) within two years.
(Note that we have
to watch how the various companies and articles specify the
speed of their connections -- some stating speeds in megaBYTES/second,
while others specify in megaBITS/second, where one BYTE contains
8 BITS. For comparison, 1 giga byte /second = 1,000
megabytes /second = 8,000 mega bits /second
-- or a 2,667-times increase in speed compared to today's
3 mega bits /second typical cable speed!)
30 seconds to download a movie. That's "video on demand."
That's a potential fundamental change to yet another industry
-- if it doesn't adapt to its customers' expectations before
less legitimate services steal their customers' hearts, minds,
is fast enough. For now...
Yet, we'll always need
even more bandwidth. For example, just wait until you want
to download your first HDTV movie; you'll find out that even
100 megabytes/second 'fiber-to-the-curb' technology is slow.
Happily, advances in
fiber technologies, and others, will assure that this beat
This essay is
original and was specifically prepared for publication at
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