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One Size Fits All: When It Comes to Predicting the Network of the Future, This Simply Isn't True

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

My son Cole, who will be two years old at the end of next month, likes to wear my shoes. He likes to wear Mama's shoes, too, and the shoes of his big brother, Channing. He wears his own shoes, too, and sometimes -- especially when he wants to wear my shoes, which are size 11 -- he'll wear his shoes and my shoes, because this shoe-in-a-shoe technique does a better job of keeping my shoes on his feet, especially when he's being carried, looking to the world like a toddler with jackrabbit feet. But his ultimate technique for keeping my adult size 11s on his toddler size seven feet is to wear his shoes on the correct feet, but my shoes on the incorrect feet, that yin-and-yang fit creating just enough extra friction that he can reliably pound around the house looking like a charming little dork.

We keep trying to do pretty much the same thing with the Internet.

I've covered aspects of this phenomenon three times in recent weeks and many times over the years. The key questions are: 1) Where is the network heading? and 2) Which networking technology will emerge as dominant? The former question is really, "What will we do with the Internet?" The latter comes down to this: "Which network technology best fits with that emerging need?"

The answer is simple -- none of them.

The only network technology I'd rule out for the future is v.92/94 dialup. No matter what tricks you use to accelerate it, the network is going to end-to-end IP and dialup -- if it survives at all -- will do so strictly as some form of emulation, generating a fake dial tone on a digital network. Imagine using a Vonage Voice-over-IP adapter with your cable modem to generate a dial tone so your modem can connect to the Net. That's crazy. It is also analogous to the way Cole is able to wear my shoes. It's possible, but who would actually do it?

So broadband of some sort will prevail, and the truth is that broadband of many sorts will prevail, simply because there will always be at least limited competition and one size definitely doesn't fit all.

The big challenge, of course, is video. How do you replicate the cable or broadcast TV experience while improving on it by allowing random access and global niche audiences? Random access and global niche audiences are easy; it is replicating the broadcast or cable TV experience that is hard. We can argue, of course, that once people realize they can get their Pakistani TV news straight from Islamabad, which is so much cooler than filtering it through New York or Washington, DC, they'll stop missing Peter Jennings completely.

Well, my Mom, who had a bit of a thing for Jennings (and for Tom Selleck, showing her range) will never stop missing him. And that's the whole problem of this "the market will move on when it figures this out" model, because large parts of the market won't figure it out and will never move on.

Like I explained several weeks ago in my column about the slowing of U.S. broadband growth: The only way to pick up that marginal audience without having to simply wait for them to die is by getting them to switch to IP without their knowing that's what they are doing. To do this requires Internet-enabling the devices they are already using, like my Mom's Zenith console television. But that act of enabling has to be cheap and simple, which does not mean using a Windows Media Center PC or even Apple's Front Row. It means inexpensive Internet-aware set-top boxes that can transparently handle the entire Internet client function, using the TV only as a display device with a user interface that doesn't look much different from what's offered today by the local cable TV company.

This doesn't mean you can't offer all sorts of additional bells and whistles for those who want them or can be induced to use them, but the base functionality has to emulate the traditional TV experience, perhaps with a simple TiVO-like recording capability thrown-in.

This is what it will take for the market to truly embrace end-to-end IP: enabling it to be totally invisible to the user. And while users and analysts can rave about one product or technology or another, to my knowledge nobody is yet offering such capability in the marketplace.

Of course, I am writing here about the U.S. market, but the same story is being played-out in every other market that offers broadband, anywhere in the world. Unless you can attract close to 100 percent of the audience, you can't turn off the old technology with which that market is comfortable.

Which brings us back to the original question of what network technology will be dominant, say, five to seven years from now? I can say with some assurance that it will be IP-based and that it will have the capability to appear to legacy devices just like the analog network being replaced. But on the network level, will it be DSL, digital cable, WiMax, Broadband-over Power Line (BPL), Ultra-Wide Band (UWB), WiFi, or something behind Door Number Three? On the application level will it be unicast, multicast, edge-caching, peer-to-peer, or yet something else from behind Door Number Three? The answers are "yes" and "yes," but the details vary depending on who is your ISP.

The simplest play and the real short-term advantage lies with the cable TV company. They can switch all customers to digital cable without even explaining that it is digital cable. They can restructure their metro network into more subnets to get greater effective Internet bandwidth. If they need it, they can use UWB technology from companies like Pulse-Link to throw an extra one-plus gigabits-per-second of bandwidth on top of the existing digital cable platform. By transparently embracing H.264, they can double or quadruple the number of available channels or devote two to four times as much bandwidth to pure Internet. If they get really clever (which I expect only in reaction to some external competitive threat), they can build an invisible P2P client right into the set-top box, increasing by 10X or more the capacity of the network.

The logical competitor to the cable TV company is the phone company, with the phone company's great advantage being near-100 percent market penetration, compared to about 66 percent for cable in the U.S. That's the phone company's advantage, but the phone company's disadvantage, no matter what they say in their marketing materials, is that their total available network bandwidth is less than that of cable TV. Yes, you are sharing cable with your neighbors, but that TV cable carries a very real gigabit while DSL maxes-out at 24 megabits-per-second -- a number that can be achieved only under highly specific (and rarely found) conditions. My "1.5-megabit" DSL line in Charleston peaks at 900 kilobits-per-second no matter what the phone company does.

Fiber-to-the-Home is one possible answer, but it comes at an enormous cost. Mandating it for all users would bankrupt any of these companies, and my Mom would still be unlikely to give them permission to dig through her garden.

As a total solution, then, both the cable company and the phone company don't make it. Cable doesn't have the market penetration and telephone broadband doesn't have the bandwidth. Each needs something else, and that's where supplemental technologies take over. For cable that probably means some form of wireless to allow relatively cheap connections to the 33 percent of homes who don't have cable and are unlikely to buy it under any circumstances. Yes, it would be easier to just connect the darned cable, but enough of the market is showing reluctance to do that that it is time for the cable companies to get a clue and offer some alternative path, which could be WiMax or maybe BPL.

The same goes for telephone companies, where the most logical way to get the needed bandwidth is by satellite. Many phone companies in the U.S. are already reselling DirecTV or Echostar, but the consolidation we're seeing among phone providers strongly suggests that someone is going to figure out soon that it makes more sense to own that capacity than simply to resell it. The de facto phone company competitors in the U.S. are Verizon and AT&T, and I would expect one or the other to snap up Echostar, though don't be surprised if US West doesn't try for such a purchase to make itself look better to an acquirer, or maybe a foreign player like British Telecom or Deutsche Telecom will buy it. Buying DirecTV would require buying Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, which would probably be too big a bite for any of these companies, so Echostar is the target.

I'm not saying here that the future absolutely must be satellite versus some other technology. My point is that what's likely to rule in the marketplace is a combination of approaches, and anyone who argues against this is probably wrong.

I have no insider information here, just logic. I can argue (and have, quite recently) that P2P can emulate some or all of the cable TV experience, but it still isn't easy. Especially for companies with deep pockets, a hybrid solution is much more likely, because one size generally doesn't fit all.

Except, of course, for Cole.

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