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Who needs high-speed broadband?

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National Broadband Plan, FCCOn paper, the main crux of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recently released National Broadband Plan is fairly straightforward: help 100 million rural, underprivileged and otherwise underserved households across the U.S. get access to the Internet at speeds of at least 100 megabits per second over the next decade. The reality of the country’s efforts to expand broadband access is much more complicated, according to a roundtable discussion hosted Monday by New York Law School in New York City.

Roundtable participants, including Blair Levin, executive director of the FCC Omnibus Broadband Initiative, addressed the plan from a number of angles, including how high-speed broadband would be used and the factors that go into delivering the consistently high speeds the government is promising.

The 400-page plan (the first draft was 2,300 pages), introduced on March 16, attempts to address issues that will be relevant to broadband access over the next several years, said Levin, who served as chief of staff for FCC Chairman Reed Hundt from 1993 to 1997.

One of the most important reasons for the U.S. to scale-up its broadband capabilities is so its telecommunications infrastructure can handle new applications that will require high speeds such as 100 megabits per second. "Apps are something we’re very good at and something we want to continue to be very good at," Levin said. For this to happen, U.S. developers need access to the highest speeds available.

Levin acknowledged, however, that there is little demand outside of businesses for speeds anywhere near 100 megabits per second. "It could be that cloud computing is one of the things that drives the demand for 100 megabits, but I’m not seeing that right now," he said, later adding that there is nothing to suggest that smart electrical grids or Internet-based learning resources for children will require 100 megabits per second anytime soon either.

Another key component of the National Broadband Plan is the government’s effort to get broadband providers to quote realistic data-transmission speeds when marketing their services. Often, telecommunications companies and cable providers say they can offer particular high speeds but do not typically deliver on those speeds, Levin said, although he clarified that he was not accusing anyone of committing fraud.

Delivering high-speed broadband data flow consistently is not as simple as it would seem and is an area where the National Broadband Plan "got it wrong," Comcast Senior Director for Public Policy David Don said during a roundtable discussion that took place after Levin had departed. The plan suggests that Internet service providers (ISPs), this would include Comcast, are to blame for Internet connections that are slower than peak performance, he said.

Comcast can calculate what its networks are providing, he added, but actual speeds depend significantly on a variety of different factors, include the quality of the computer the consumer is using to access the Internet, the operating system running on that computer and the speed of the servers hosting the Web sites that a consumer is trying to access. "We can talk about what our network is capable of doing," Don said, "but the actual user experience is not something within our control entirely."

Image © iStockphoto.com/Fabian Kerbusch

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  1. 1. dfcrowder 11:44 am 04/20/2010

    We now live in rural Nebraska having moved from Fort Collins, CO a year ago. Most people around here still use dial-up. There are few newspapers available and no book stores. I pay $180 per month for a 10mb DSL line. Since this is only in town I pay another $180 for a one-room office. At the farm Verizon Wireless has saved our bacon.

    My Sciam subscription is electronic, as are my newspaper subscriptions.

    Rural folks are not online gamers. We need enough bandwidth to be able to download software, have online meetings and seminars and quickly download media. Have you ever tried YouTube by dial-up?

    Somehow our government always thinks bigger than the need. Maybe this is a mechanism to get away with doing nothing. People around here would kill for a reasonably priced speed of 2.5Mb to 5Mb. 10Mb across the board would be divine intervention. I am a heavy user but can’t imagine need at this point for 100Mb. What ever happened to Baby Steps?

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  2. 2. JvSciGuy 11:54 am 04/20/2010

    Apples/Oranges and sour grapes.

    The 100 Mb is nominal and selects the target infrastructure. Tnis indicates a fiber backbone and certain limitations on distribution bits. The actual delivery speed can and probably would be much lower to the residence.

    If we (tax payers) spend money it should only be on technology that is recent yet proven. 100 Mb is the current standard in urban areas even though the residence may be at a much lower connection rate. To specify less would open spending up to dumping of older technologies which must be prevented.

    We have already seen this bait and swotch in outr area with an initial rollout of substandard equipment which had to be replaced quickly at the consumers expense. Comcast should be well aware of this as they inherited much of this poor equipment when theypurchased local providers.

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  3. 3. JvSciGuy 11:55 am 04/20/2010

    Apples/Oranges and sour grapes.

    The 100 Mb is nominal and selects the target infrastructure. Tnis indicates a fiber backbone and certain limitations on distribution bits. The actual delivery speed can and probably would be much lower to the residence.

    If we (tax payers) spend money it should only be on technology that is recent yet proven. 100 Mb is the current standard in urban areas even though the residence may be at a much lower connection rate. To specify less would open spending up to dumping of older technologies which must be prevented.

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  4. 4. lindted 12:10 pm 04/20/2010

    This is very much a chicken and egg problem. The high bandwidth is required to allow the availiabilty of services and apps on the Internet. The basic infrastructure has to be there first. David Don apparently is unaware of the systems that provide 100 Mb and beyond in many other countries at lower cost. The US should not be content to be 16th or lower on the list of international Internet capability.

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  5. 5. phil rimmer 12:39 pm 04/20/2010

    Of course you will need 100Mb channels. Spontaneous purchase of HDTV content will only take off if the purchase can be effected whilst you are still in the mood/have the time. Purchases for deferred viewing will be much lower volume. 3D will eat up the capacity. Always on HDTV video presence will play hugely in connecting family and friends, to say nothing of remote work colleagues. HDTV transforms the awful video conference experience and smart face tracking cameras feeding in PiP images enhance readability for the hard of hearing etc. etc. I could go on. Korea has it. The US needs it and quick.

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  6. 6. rosechalice 12:42 pm 04/20/2010

    The nay-sayers will point out the sentence "nothing to suggest that smart electrical grids or Internet-based learning resources for children will require 100 megabits per second anytime soon either". Those who are pro-active will say, 15 years ago, we did not need 64kb/s. Install a 10oMb system now, because when it is universally needed it will cost 4 or 5 times as much.

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  7. 7. slostartr 1:00 pm 04/20/2010

    I live just outside a small town, and can’t get broadband. I can’t get over one or two pictures in an email, and even that takes a long time. The size of an email is limited. I have a large family that likes to keep in touch with each other, plus friends. Most of them have broadband, so they don’t realize how limited a dialup system is. My email is shut down now, as it is much of the time. I have to call the provider & have my mailbox un-hung, which involves deleting some of my mail. I never know what is deleted. They only take calls 4 days a week, so I have to wait 3 days sometimes to get my email. I can’t afford a satelite system, as my income is limited. I’m not a business or a corporation, so I’m not important in the big picture, but I will be happy when my phone company can offer me the same service it offers its customers in town, 2 miles away.

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  8. 8. RDH 3:16 pm 04/20/2010

    Just like the government. A day late and a dollar short. As the trend is to cut cables and go wireless, we are trying to run land lines to every home? This is a joke right?

    My "rural" (and non-rural) friends have been dropping the old phone and going exclusively with their wireless. They also purchase the wireless device for their computer from Sprint (or other provider) to get much faster than dial-up internet. Works in the home, at work, on the lake or on the beach. Even in the car. Tether your T1 line to that.

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  9. 9. Paying my own way 3:47 pm 04/20/2010

    To the writer who just moved from Fort Collins to rural Nebraska.

    We all pick where we live. I’ve chosen Boston – it take me 1.5 hours to get thru traffic into work, $35 bucks a day to park if I drive (in excess of $200 per month to use public transportation). I’m not asking the folks in Nebraska to pay to widen roads or subsidize my subway. My annual housing costs are probably many multiples of those in Nebraska. But I choose to live here. If less expensive high speed broadband is important to you – then choose to live in a location where it makes economic sense to offer it for something less than $200 per month!

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  10. 10. hawkeye 5:30 pm 04/20/2010

    "Levin acknowledged, however, that there is little demand outside of businesses for speeds anywhere near 100 megabits per second." And just how did he arrive at that conclusion? He certainly didn’t ask me, or anyone I know; and everyone I know consistently opts for the highest speed he/she can get.

    I’m currently paying big bucks for a nominal 100 mb/sec, which actually delivers 54 mb/sec. While certainly better than the 5 mb/sec we had prior to three years ago, it is still inadequate for all the things I want to do. And even with this, I still had to do some serious rationing of Windows Update, the security suite, and various other bandwidth hogs to avoid slowing to a crawl at times.

    And with the argument that "we’ll never need speeds that fast", I am reminded of our first computer system, bought in 1983. It was an IBM PC with 640 KB of memory, a monochrome monitor, and a dot matrix printer. As a business system, it cost $15,ooo. For an additional $3000, we added a 10 megabyte hard drive (yeah, that’s not a typo – TEN megabytes).

    Most of our colleagues and clients thought we were crazy. I lost count of the number of them who asked, "a ten megabyte hard drive? what are ever going to do with all that storage?!"

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  11. 11. jtdwyer 7:31 pm 04/20/2010

    Of course I want to pay for others’ networking expenses and of course I wouldn’t want them to be stuck with the same old technology I’m using – give them the next generation equipment, funding telcom’s rollout expenses, speeding turnover and replacement of all currently installed equipment. Make sure their ‘free’ phones are the latest as well – maybe I can catch up with everyone else some day, since I’ll soon be disadvantaged, too…

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  12. 12. alexhunt 6:04 am 04/21/2010

    Are you sure it is not fraud? I have consistently heard and read advertised transmision rates in the MB/S range but have never experienced anything above 200Kb/s. I have spent alot of money pursuing the advertised rates but the more I learn the more unattainable I realize theses advertised rates are.

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  13. 13. bac522 6:40 am 04/21/2010

    Not surprised to hear the Comcast Droid make his negative comments. Their HFC network (specifically the ‘C’ part) is incapable of handling these speeds and they know it.

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  14. 14. bac522 6:41 am 04/21/2010

    Not surprised to hear the Comcast Droid make his negative comments. Their HFC network (specifically the ‘C’ part) is incapable of handling these speeds and they know it. So when you know your network can’t do something, what’s your next best step…complain about it!

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  15. 15. Wayne Williamson 7:43 pm 04/21/2010

    rural is the hardest part…i don’t think it will ever(well not for along time) get 10MB bandwidth to them….on the other hand wimax can probably get fast internet(1mb+ vs dial up(32kb(talking more than three miles from a switch)) to the majority of them in a short time.

    with wimax you can have both your phone and internet connection though a box in your house. the box talks to a "tower" i believe up to 30 miles away. this has nothing to do with cellular networks(although they want you to believe that).

    so as a first step instead of having to run fiber to the door, it just needs to be with in 30 miles of everyone….

    just my two and a half cents….

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