What will the world look like with gigablt broadband?

by Chris O'Brien, San Jose Mercury News

Tucked in the Federal Communications Commission's national broadband plan is an ambitious goal: Connect 100 million households to affordable 100-megabits-per-second service over the next decade.

That's blazing fast compared with what most people have today. While Comcast plans to roll out 100MB service in the Bay Area later this year, its top speed to residential customers today is 50MB. And across the country, the average Internet connection speed — at least for those with broadband connections — is around 5MB.

So what exactly would we do with Internet connections so fast? According to broadband experts I consulted Monday, the answer is not clear, but the potential is revolutionary, as transformative as the changes spawned by the move from dial-up to current broadband speeds.

The reason we don't know much about how these connections would be used is that they are still just trickling out to mainstream users. We're just starting to get glimpses of what that broadband world will look like.

For help, I called Brian Bowman, manager of public affairs for Wilson, N.C., a city of 50,000 that built its own broadband utility called Greenlight, which launched in 2008.

'Competitive world'

Greenlight sells 100MB broadband service for $299 a month, still steep for most folks. Bowman said most of Greenlight's 4,667 customers get connections ranging from 10MB to 20MB. Still, the utility has started to see some interesting uses, such as firefighters using two-way high-resolution videoconferences to do remote training. And some businesses have installed cameras in parking lots connected to the network, allowing them to monitor security on their laptops.

Most important, one of the major banks in town signed up to give its operations center with 2,000 employees superfast connections. In a world where such businesses are constantly moving to lower-cost regions, that's given Wilson some assurance the bank will stick around.

"As you know, it's a very competitive world," Bowman said. "Businesses can go anywhere. We wanted to be competitive on a global scale."

Indeed, these are the types of things the FCC believes superfast broadband will enable. Economic development. Education through distance learning. And more applications like telemedicine that will improve health care while reducing costs.

Playing in the sandbox

Gary Bachula is vice president for external affairs for Internet2, a nonprofit consortium of universities that delivers 100MB Internet connections to its 400 members, including Stanford University. Bachula noted that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been experimenting with sending patients home and monitoring their conditions via broadband connections, thus reducing the cost of hospital stays.

Bachula said two-way videoconferencing is quite common among his member campuses. And distance learning has increased as members begin to offer a greater variety of classes through high-resolution video feeds.

But Bachula, and many others, say that to look forward, we need to look backward. They point to the transition from dial-up to broadband and the radical changes it spawned.

For instance, thanks to the Internet2 consortium, many students had ultrafast connections long before most of us. And it was these students who became the early users of such things as peer-to-peer file services, which allowed the easy (and often free) sharing of online music (much to the dismay of the music industry).

Bachula noted that having superfast connections on campus allowed an entrepreneur named Mark Zuckerberg to build and launch Facebook from his dorm room. And more broadly, the faster, persistent connections that came with broadband have allowed users to connect a greater array of devices to the Internet, watch millions of videos on YouTube, and propelled the growth of a whole range of cloud-based computing services.

"We think the transition from broadband to ultra-high-speed broadband will result in applications that we can't even envision yet," said Dan Martin, a spokesman for Google, which recently announced plans to build a 1-gigabit network as a test project in a yet-to-be-chosen city or cities.

The lesson is that we won't know what those uses are until we create the infrastructure that allows entrepreneurs to play in the broadband sandbox. If the U.S. falls short of the FCC's ambitious goal, we risk losing those pioneers to countries that have made more progress bringing superfast Internet access to their citizens.

article originally published at San Jose Mercury News.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey