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January 17, 2013

The Broadband SuperHypeway

Fourteen years ago I mentioned that I was going to write a book entitled the "Information SuperHypeway." The term was a take-off on the then most common buzz-phrase of the "Information Superhighway" popularized at the time by Al Gore. I'm still going to write that book because the hype hasn't stopped, it's just morphed from talking about "information" to talking about the infrastructure itself—"broadband."

It's hard to avoid the drumbeat these days about why it's absolutely necessary that we get a "1 Gig" broadband infrastructure built throughout the United States. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the low-ball estimate for the government to build it as a "public utility" would be around $140 billion. Needless to say, I don't think it's going to happen that way. But it might be useful to take a look at the reality of broadband infrastructure and its limitations to understand why the folks trumpeting for "more" simply don't make much sense.

Their base argument is that if someone can think up any newer, faster, bigger, and therefore presumably better program or application or device or even a theoretical use of "broadband," that should be enough to justify the demand that the infrastructure to accommodate it should somehow be funded and built. This is sheer nonsense.

We know folks who love building cars that can go 160 MPH or more around the Atlanta Speedway. Does that mean that all roads in the United States should be "upgraded" to be able to handle cars going at 160 MPH?

Put in telecommunications terms, we had the television set manufacturers focusing a big spotlight on the "newest" television sets earlier this month at the CES Show. The big news: 4K, "Ultra HD." Four times the resolution of "regular" HD! And yes, just as those cars are, indeed, fast, 4K sets produce great pictures. Now you can't really see the difference until the set is larger than will fit properly in most living rooms, but still, it's a great picture. Does that really mean that all the infrastructure related to delivering video to those "newest, greatest" sets should now be rebuilt to be able to deliver all that data to them?

No one really wanted to focus on that question. Turns out that even with the best, newest compression algorithims 4K delivery would require close to 6 MHz of bandwidth! We're going backwards! The broadband industry moved to digital in order to make video delivery more efficient than the 6 MHz per channel required for analog delivery. Now we're back eating up the bandwidth as though it was limitless. Well it's not. And some television set folks are already talking about 8K! All they care about is selling "new" sets... forget the practical question of how it's really going to work, where the bandwidth will come from to actually feed those monsters.

But that goes back to the "hype" logic; if someone can figure out a bigger, better, faster device, then everyone has to bow to the "need" to feed the monster. Well, it's time to call it what it is; total hype. The infrastructure is simply not in place to deliver "4K" over the Internet or "OTT" in any volume, and cable operators should be loathe to go back to the old days of assigning so much bandwidth to one channel. It just doesn't make sense, no matter how loud the hype gets. The fact that we can imagine using limitless bandwidth doesn't, shouldn't and won't make it so.

(Steve Effros was President of CATA for 23 years and is now an advisor and consultant to the cable industry. This column originally appeared in CableFAX Daily.)







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