With Broadband, Quality Should Trump Penetration

walshWith governments around the world spending billions of dollars trying to prop up ailing economies, many are taking advantage of this flood of stimulus money to address perceived shortcomings in broadband penetration. On the surface, this makes sense — most agree that high-speed Internet access infrastructure is a vital, high-tech equivalent to the public works projects that might have consumed such taxpayer largess in the past. But closer inspection raises questions as to whether or not “penetration” is the right metric to evaluate the health of broadband infrastructure. A case can be made that it is now time to shift our focus from promoting penetration to improving broadband quality.

Penetration is typically expressed as the percentage of people with access to broadband connections. While many can access the Internet over high-speed connections from their workplaces, libraries or coffee shops, government efforts generally focus on fixed broadband connections to residential households. The OECD recently released an update to its regular series of reports measuring the state of broadband adoption, ranking the U.S. 15th among member countries, with 25.8 connections per 100 inhabitants. Research firm broadbandtrends.com also recently issued a global study of broadband penetration, estimating that 60.2 percent of U.S. households have broadband connections. And Pew Internet conducted a survey in April that showed 63 percent of the U.S. population has broadband connections at home.

Throwing cold water on the “let’s use taxpayer money to build more broadband” argument, the Pew survey concludes that only 4 percent of U.S. adults lack broadband because they can’t get it. The balance of households decline to purchase broadband because it’s either too expensive, too complex, or they’re just not interested. So, do we really want to spend vast sums of taxpayer money extending broadband to the 4 percent of the population who may want it but can’t get it?

That’s not to say we’re done with broadband. It was always the case that broadband penetration would eventually approach 100 percent of the addressable market and, once that occurred, our priorities would need to shift. An indicator that we’re approaching this point is the tapering growth in broadband connections. As Om recently pointed out, broadband growth slowed sharply in the second quarter. Although economic factors are at play, this is also a mathematically inevitable result of growing broadband market share. As happened previously with landline and cell networks, the next wave of public and private investment in broadband infrastructure should be focused on quality.

But what does quality mean as it applies to broadband? To date, there have only been two quantifiable measures of broadband quality: speed and reliability. And if all we were doing with broadband was surfing, emailing, tweeting, and using Bing, speed and reliability would be adequate. But an increasing percentage of broadband capacity is being used to deliver streaming video directly to consumer high-definition televisions. Fully 50 percent of downstream broadband capacity will be consumed by streaming video by 2013, research firm IDC projects.

It is difficult to argue that the “best-effort” Internet is up to the job of delivering real-time streaming video that meets consumer quality expectations. These expectations are quite simple: a viewing experience indistinguishable from locally attached DVD or Blu-ray players. For this reason, just about anyone offering “professional” content (e.g., Amazon (s amzn), Apple (s aapl) iTunes, Netflix) uses content delivery networks (CDNs) to bypass the Internet and drop traffic directly into broadband networks. CDNs are built and engineered to guarantee the service quality demanded by streaming video.

Broadband networks will need to develop similar video capabilities in order to satisfy consumer expectations. And just as with CDNs, this is not simply a speed thing. Video mean opinion scores have been used to measure the quality of video CODECs and can also be employed to measure the ability of broadband networks to deliver video quality. It is not difficult to envision broadband operators competing not on the basis of price or speed but on video (or gaming or VOIP) quality. “Can you see me now?”

Kevin Walsh has over 25 years of telecommunications and networking industry experience and is currently an executive at Zeugma Systems.