All of the discussions about “Gigabit Internet” and coming up with uses for it focuses too much on the American obsession with “bigger, faster, moar!” while obscuring what I feel are the more important issues of accessibility, affordability, choice of provider, freedom from data exploitation and dependency on the cloud. To wit….
Accessibility – The most important element of networking is accessibility to the network. Gigabit networks do nothing to resolve this, and draw focus away from the bigger issue of accessibility for people and businesses in places that have limited or no access. 100% accessibility to reliable 5meg connections has more ultimate utility than even 50% access to gigabit. The power, utility and benefit to society of networks increases with the number of connected nodes and persons on the network. There is too much focus on the magical quest for a Holy Grail of networks for the few blessed souls to drink from when the more important need is cups of clean water for everyone to drink from.
Affordability – This point refers to affordability on both sides of the provider/consumer equation. The focus on Gigabit-capable networks effectively excludes all current non-fiber broadband delivery systems and forces a provider to have set of deployment skills, capital requirements and political relationships that are very difficult to put together unless many compromises are made along the way. Nearly every fiber deployment model requires a per-connection threshold of $100/month of revenue to cash flow and a take rate greater than 50%. The networks that don’t meet this requirement end up being dependent on outside capital (investment or Google Bucks) or government subsidy/support to remain viable. Consumers are looking for the cheapest price possible, but the telecoms have gamed the system to make consumers think they are paying less, when in reality they are paying more through taxes, bundles of services that they don’t need or allowing outside parties to monitor their traffic and behavior. What is the REAL cost of an economically sustainable, non-government funded, unencumbered with data mining Gigabit fiber broadband connection? Would consumers actually pay that price? Those are two questions that desperately need to be answered to get a true perspective.
Choice of Provider – Without competition there is stagnation, rent seeking, abuse of power and entropy. The common thought is that once fiber is installed to an area, that is the end game so all of our efforts should be to get fiber to every household/business/teepee/mud hut in the world, as fast as we can and no matter what it costs. But those costs are high, and there are very useful alternatives that are equally capable (for nearly all practical purposes) and cost a fraction as much to deploy or have already been deployed. Let those alternatives be deployed, and let the consumer make the choice. The focus on gigabit obscures choice, and draws attention away from more affordable and sustainable methodologies that can make a bigger difference and provide choice for the end user. If we had more choice, we also would not have the issues that we have with Net Neutrality. If you don’t like how your ISP treats you, switch! Broadband doesn’t have to be a universal human right, but every person should have the ability to stop sending money to a bad provider in favor of one that works better for them.
Freedom from Data Exploitation – Online usage, browsing habits, location data and product purchasing information is already being monitored to a disturbing degree. Cell phones are constantly collecting information and feeding it to corporate data analysis engines, but the terms of this monitoring and tracking is a given – a necessary trade off for most people who are unwilling to forego the functionality and services offered on modern smart phones. Google Fiber has the ability to take this data mining to a completely different level. Google will have the ability to track every single packet of data that goes through its network and control over the devices in the home used to deliver that service. How intrusive can data-mining become? There are already disturbing hints of what we can expect in the future. My grandmother has a funny picture of myself, my sister and a cousin playing in our underwear in a mud puddle when I was 5 years old. If someone were to take that picture today with a smart phone, there is a risk that image recognition software could consider this to be child abuse/pron and flag the user. That is the tip of the iceberg, and gives no consideration for the other potential abuses of granular data collection that will be taking place on monitored networks. This is part of the hidden cost of Google Fiber or the mobile broadband networks, and is implicit in their utilization. Users should be able to recover some of their privacy. The right to monitor personal data at the granular level should not be built into our networks.
Dependency on the Cloud – Gigabit fiber networks are also being pushed because they are the keys to “The Cloud” being ubiquitously available. Companies like Google, Amazon, Neflix, et. al. want to see Gigabit connectivity to every household because it makes their business models work better. Google Fiber is optimized to provide the user with the best possible experience for using Google services, and those services are dependent on the connection back to their server resources. Is it just me or does this sound like the mainframe mindset coming back around again? Before personal computers, there were single purpose connections back to centralized computer resources. The PC broke that stranglehold and moved computing power back out to the edge, unleashing a torrent of innovation. Now we have super powerful pocket computers that are basically a tiny warm brick if they are not connected to “the Cloud” and the desire for instantaneous streaming of video and offsite data storage for photos and videos has pushed broadband networks to the limit, especially at peak usage times. The independence of the personal computer era is being replaced with dependencies, closed models and congested networks. When it comes to suitability of purpose, a 10meg connection is just as good as a gigabit connection for nearly all practical purposes. I have a gigabit connection at my office and a 10meg connection at home. I use the 10meg connection more and see little or no difference between the two. But I also do try to maintain my own “cloud” of information that does not live on someone else’s servers – it lives on my own hardware and access to it is not controlled by any outside party or scanned and monitored for behavioral data or advertising purposes. 10meg works just fine for streaming Netflix, Youtube and the like even when three family members are using it at the same time. I do video conferencing, sizable uploads and downloads and I work from home a lot. Everyone wants a gigabit connection for $40/month, but not very many are going to be willing to pay $4000/month.
Where do we need gigabit connections? They work great for feeding alternate providers like WISPs and small fiber carriers. The gigabit connection at my office is used to provide service to 2000+ customers of my wireless broadband business and rarely gets over 50% utilization even at peak hours. It also costs over $4000/month, but it is unencumbered by overprovisioning, is not data mined at the subscriber level and is not government subsidized. It allows me to build a sustainable network that provides 10Meg or better speeds to a huge rural area that covers three states without a need for constant government support or massive influxes of outside cash into the business. I can provide a CHOICE for the people in my coverage area, and the business I get is because of the quality of the product that I provide instead of the quality of my political connections or ability to milk our regulatory system.
There will be a time when it will make sense to have a gigabit fiber connection to every possible location, but that time is not now, and the price is not right. Our progress as a society and future as a species is not dependent on big pipes. There is nothing wrong with dreaming on ideas, but the most powerful dreams and concepts are the ones that are inclusive and provide opportunities for everyone and not just a chosen few.