Communications have always been a focus of trailblazing research, given that it’s one of the most immediately applicable fields of applied physics. Edison, Marconi, Hertz – they all knew where the money was. Einstein, alas, had to make do with the more mundane subjects of estimating the size of the universe and disintegrating people.
Broadband is a nebulous term which sums up every method of accessing the world’s largest communications networks (the internet and the World Wide Web) at faster and faster speeds. The field now attracts the best universities and private research labs in a way that regular voice communications (telephones) once did. It’s not for nothing that the network being built to replace the copper telephone wire network is called the National Broadband Network and not the National Telephone Network. Soon enough, there will be no 'offline' – everything will be based in Internet Protocol (IP).
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So what needs to be done, can be done, and is being worked on right now, in every aspect of Broadband? Let’s take a look, and add some wild speculation of our own.
Nuts and Bolts
Cyberspace. The very idea suggests that the Internet is a wonderful thing that doesn’t ‘exist’ in the way that a building exists; it’s a virtual world floating around us. Rubbish. The Internet is very real, and is made up of ancient stuff. Steel, copper, concrete, glass, rubber – it’s just all spread out. But it’s there. The Internet weighs a billion tons.
So any talk of wireless is nonsense. The internet is not wireless. It’s very wired, right through the ocean floor. But in the final jump from your hands to the people who control it, that’s where wireless technologies can play a part. In this last bit of the equation, there’s a lot going on.
XG – 4th generation wireless networks, or 4G, is a term often conflated with Long Term Evolution (LTE). At this point, it’s not really about making mobile faster – that’s inevitable. It’s about getting around the physics of radio. The more data per second you push (speed), the less distance it can travel in air. So it’s about the application.
For speed, we can easily recall the recent story of a US-Israeli research team who transmitted a 2.5Tbps signal over 1 metre, using ‘Twisted Light’. That’s fantastic. It’s also several years away from any type of widespread application. A single strand of optical fibre can do 50 times that, over 160km – and with far less power consumption.
So the real future of wireless is an expansion of short range wireless, and a reduction in long range. This means wireless access points at the end of every street, fed by an underground fibre network, rather than big mobile towers broadcasting a wide net to all and sundry.
Wired - As for the fibre itself, that’s not going anywhere. Fibre will provide the backbone for all of this for a long, long time. Unlike Iron, which is plentiful, cheap and strong (but is hard to get to and rusts in air), or Radio, which is almost indistinguishable from magic (but can’t do what we need it to unless we fry our brains), fibre is made from Silicon, which is cheap and perfectly suited to the task. It’s not even a case of silicon being the best suited element at the best price, the way copper is; gold and platinum still wouldn’t do what we need in this context, as well as cheap-as- chips silicon. It’s a perfect marriage of it being the best AND cheapest material for its intended application.
EXCEPT…it’s breakable. Making fibre strands out of more durable plastic (which can also bounce around light signals at high speed) would require more mining of hydrocarbons, so it’s ultimately inefficient.
Of course, silicon glass fibres are doped with other elements, to add special properties. What if we could dope these fibres with something that would make it indestructible?
Wild Speculation – Graphene! Graphene is a form of carbon which seems capable of almost anything. Carbon is easily the most versatile element, bonding with whatever it damn well pleases to make all sorts of stuff. Graphene, a form of carbon that’s an atom thick, has been demonstrated in labs to make almost everything better. It’ll make waterproofing better. It’ll make electricity better. It desalinates sea water 1000 times more efficiently than all currently used materials. It makes solar energy capture far better. It has already been used to dope silicon fibres to make them capable of transmitting even faster speeds. What if it were applied to make silicon strands nearly indestructible? What if it were cheap and easy enough to make, without massive impact on the environment? We could replace EVERY copper wire that carries data…with graphene-doped glass! Bwahahaha…use graphene to transmit power! Replace entire superstructures with graphene!
Ok, let’s slow down. Graphene is really difficult to make right now. But it IS potentially a material that would take us into a new age (I guess we currently still live in the Iron Age; though it’s more like the Iron-Copper-Aluminium-Silicon Age, which is totes catchy). Mass produced graphene will completely revolutionize communications, on its way to everything else.
Now on the boring part of this: how will we pay for it?
Right now, the market economics of obtaining a broadband connection are woefully complex all over the world. Part of that is by design – complexity helps businesses to obscure unexpected streams of revenue – like offering a limited amount of megabytes to people who wouldn’t know a megabyte if it megabit them on their megabum (or minibum – I don’t want to discriminate against the bumless).
The other part of this complexity is just painful evolution. We’re trying to get access to stuff conceived of in the last 5 years with technology developed 100 years ago – technology that is expensive to replace.
And then, there’s the other ingredient making all of this complicated…the ingredient that really matters. And that’s property rights.
****WARNING - DANGEROUS COMMUNISM AHEAD*****
The argument for capitalism is that it provides a clear incentive (money) for people to achieve their maximum potential. That’s great. But we have 7 billion people on the planet, all quite capable of rapid communications. A good idea here can be easily replicated over there. So the other ingredient that locks in that money is Property Rights. This says ‘I came up with it first, you can’t use it as well’.
Without wanting to sound like a Marxist, this works against the first principle of capitalism – the freedom to make the best of your abilities. Because no-one comes up with anything in pure isolation. Sometimes we absolutely need access to what came before in order to do it better in the future. But property rights can put this out of reach. I’m not saying we don’t need property rights; I’m saying they’re a powerful force for inhibiting advancements, regardless of whether they’re intended to be used that way (they’re not; they’re intended to be used to make sure the original innovator is justly rewarded for their hard work).
Ok, back to how this affects how you pay for broadband. The ‘billion tons’ of stuff that make up the physical side of the internet is usually owned by someone, who charge other people for the right to use it. In many places (Australia being one of them), this means a private company that either built or bought the underlying infrastructure. When that company has to provide other companies with access, there’s no problem with that unless they’re also competing with those companies to sell directly to the public.
Obviously, Telstra is a great example of this. They bought and paid for the copper network in the ground, on which most end-users rely for their communications. But they’re also a retailer who can sell access directly to the public. This Vertical Integration is problematic.
Vertical Integration is a big problem. Because Telstra owns the actual copper in the ground, they can stop other companies from getting in and improving it. At the same time, if they improve it themselves, everyone (including competitors) shares that benefit with no obvious advantage to Telstra.
The other problem is that a communications network leading up to every door is not the type of thing that invites competition. It’s one of those things you build once, deep in the ground. If ten companies were doing it, you’d have ten ports in your wall, each leading to different networks that all essentially do the same thing. That could get chaotic.
So the answer to these problems is having one company that just provides the wholesale access, and others who pay a flat rate that provides service to the end user. The wholesale company only makes money one way, and can’t provide directly to the end user.
That’s the idea behind Australia’s National Broadband Network, as well as UFB (Ultra Fast Broadband) in New Zealand, the National Broadband Plan in the US, and dozens of other examples worldwide.
So that’s the future here – there will a handful of Retail Service Providers, who all pay the same amount to give everyone the same underlying service. They compete on price, customer service and added services (like pay TV, phone services, mobile services, etc). But everyone has the same connection to their home, and access to the same speeds, regardless of location.
Wild Speculation – that scenario sounds nice, but it honestly puts too much stability in the system for big, profitable gains. It’s not sexy enough for many businesses. It’s not risky enough. Expect there to be some or total interruption to these plans, and plenty of scope to add confusion back into the mix. And, to give equal consideration to both sides of the politics in this, when one comapny owns the infrastructure, where is the incentive to make it better? There will be no option for alternatives.
The other problem is that most Retail Service Providers don’t really do services all that well. BigPond has been trying with BigPond Movies, Music, Games and more, but most people are happy with companies that do that sort of thing for reals – companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft.
The future best case scenario might be 'Naked Pipe'. Internet is just switched on, like any other public utility. Every application is treated the same – as a user of internet data, whether it be making a call, download a movie, teleconference with work or listening to radio. You just pay the one monthly access fee, and your services are provided directly by companies who best make them.
So those are the choices – either the powers that be will find a way to keep the status quo – a confusing mesh of barely distinguishable services with obscure conditions that catch out the unwilling…
Or no competition at all – just one company you pay for access, and then you’re free to make of the interwebs whatever you like.
***Bonus Wild Speculation***
After we win the Zombie War of 2026, we discover that their disintegrating corpses give off non-harmful, cheap and plentiful radiation to bounce a signal off of. Broadband Over Reconstituted Organic Matter (BOROM) becomes the norm.