Michael Noll: Bursty broadband will offer a faster experience

Governments are throwing billions of dollars to bring broadband to homes: $7 billion in the US and $30 billion in Australia. We can debate whether such government intervention is needed or makes sense. Governments usually bet wrong, particularly in technology, and easily fall prey to political influences. These "investments" are intended to bring speeds of 50-100 Mbps to homes. The Korean government is promoting 1 Gbps service.

More than 95 percent of the U.S. already has broadband in terms of the capacity of the coaxial cable of the CATV provider. Utilized fully for digital, this medium has capacities of over 2,000 Mbps - though shared.

Will all this capacity be used for just more boring television programs? E-mail and voice require only a few kilo bps.

Data traffic is bursty, and a data circuit is idle most of the time. This bursty characteristic of data traffic was utilized in the early implementations of packet switching by the ARPANET in which many users shared a single 64 kbps data line.

A huge data pipe offers the ability to transmit a huge bucket of data in a short burst. Given the impatience of most consumers, this might be useful. For example, with a 100 Mbps pipe, 10 minutes of compressed music could be sent in a single one-second burst. Or 10 minutes of digital video could be sent in a single 12-second burst.

Bursty broadband would offer not more or better - but faster performance. Software updates and downloads would be almost instant. Movies could be downloaded in a few minutes. Instantly gratified, consumers could then spend the next hours being bored to death on their couches.

But why governments should finance or promote this eludes me. Are they just competing with each other like lemmings in a line to disaster?

A. Michael Noll is a retired professor emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. Before that he was in marketing at AT&T, in research at Bell Labs, and in science policy at the White House. His web site is: http://noll.uscannenberg.org/.

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