Broadband Fans, We Have an Innovation Problem

Google last week said it plans to build an experimental fiber-to-the-home network that would deliver speeds of up to 1 Gbps. And this week FCC chairman Julius Genachowski outlined a goal of delivering 100 Mbps broadband to 100 million homes as part a “2020 vision” associated with the National Broadband Plan. However, amid what many perceive as good news for the wired broadband industry, the Telecommunications Industry Association and United States Telecom Association said they would not produce Supercomm, an industry trade show, due to “financial projections.” Translation: Wired broadband is in trouble. And it’s the fault of ISPs and Silicon Valley.

Despite a rollout of faster technology from some cable providers, and Verizon’s continued fiber-to-the-home buildout, the wired broadband world isn’t looking terribly exciting outside Google’s testbed project. A close inspection of the long-range FCC plan doesn’t have me overly inspired, especially as other areas of the world invest in 1 Gbps networks today.

Meanwhile, in the same time two-week period as all of this wired broadband news, the mobile industry’s largest trade show, Mobile World Congress, took place. It was chock-full of the usual mobile players as well as a who’s who of anyone in the tech scene. And issues associated with mobile broadband, from new networks to spectrum shortages (GigaOM Pro, sub req’d) and how to build applications for mobile handsets (GigaOM Pro), were all anyone could talk about.

Who Needs Wires Anyway?

Wired was tired, and mobile was basking in the glow of the spotlight and investment. But even amid the mobile lovefest, a few discordant notes were sounded. For example, Stephen Bye, VP of wireless services at Cox — a cable company that’s deploying a 3G and later a 4G wireless network — emphasized the limits of wireless broadband.

Sure, Cox has a wired network to sell, but Bye has a point when he notes the shortfalls of wireless when compared to wired broadband. Cox’s wireless  LTE tests offered speeds between 10 and 25 Mbps, which are much slower than Cox’s wired Docsis 3.0 network that can deliver 50 Mbps or more. He also mentioned the increased demands Cox has seen on its wired network and said that sending that kind of traffic over wireless networks wouldn’t work. And wireless broadband traffic is only going to rise. AT&T  already saw its double from 2008 to 2009 and doesn’t expect that rate of growth to slow, even as it uses more and more of its spectrum. And Cisco released information this month expecting mobile traffic to reach 3.6 exabytes per month — 39 times what it was in 2009.

I happen to agree with Bye, and I don’t have a network to sell, but I think the events of the last weeks  paint a pretty depressing picture of broadband in America. And we can only place some of the blame for the lackluster state of broadband on carriers. Some belongs with Silicon Valley and the tech community at large.

Wireless Isn’t The Answer.

For example, the idea that wireless broadband could be a real substitute for wired broadband showcases how crappy our current quality of broadband is. I’ve even weighed whether or not LTE or WiMAX would make a good substitute.

How could I not, when I’m stuck with residential broadband service that delivers 7 Mbps down and 400 kbps up? Wireless services are within striking range of that offering right now. It’s possible I might even get better upload speeds on some wireless networks within the year. My husband is even preparing to dump his pricey T-1 at the office in exchange for WiMAX service from Sprint.

Yes, I have limited choice on the wired side thanks to ISPs failing to invest, but why haven’t tech innovators and entrepreneurs given me something so compelling, and requiring so much bandwidth, that I wouldn’t even consider dumping my wired connection, lest I give up that killer application.

Think Big. Build Big.

So I will blame my willingness to cut the broadband cord on the ISPs’ failure to invest in their networks, but also on a failure of innovation and imagination from technology firms trying to deliver services over fat pipes. Give me something that needs 100 Mbps, so everyone knows why faster broadband is important. Much like Foursquare gets everyone stoked about location, we need an application that requires multiple megabits per second.  I understand that there’s a bit of a chicken-and-an-egg issue here, since delivering a service before too many people have fat pipes will slow adoption, but at least 55 million homes already have the infrastructure to get 100 Mbps. Build something for them.

An emphasis on building products for fat pipes will help make wired broadband exciting again. And despite the investment required by ISPs, many — especially those with mobile networks — will win. After all, as wireless speeds get faster, consumers think they should be able to do just about everything on a mobile network that they can on a wired one.

And for most of today’s applications, that’s actually true. But if we had a bigger performance divide and different applications between wired broadband and mobile broadband then consumers might have an understanding that sometimes the mobile web just can’t compete with the wired one, and that we really need both. For carriers and consumers, that could be a winning proposition.

To learn more about this topic, join GigaOM Pro on Wed., Feb. 24, for the latest Bunker Session event: The New Broadband Buildout.

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