Why Do We Need 1Gbps to the Home?

March 1st, 2010 by · 7 Comments

We WANT it certainly, but why do we need it?  On ConnectedPlanet, Rich Karpinski makes a compelling case that 1Gbps demonstrations like the one Google is trying to put together are basically irrelevant to the development of the internet.  Amongst his points is this quote:

"Higher speeds aren’t a panacea in and of themselves. If bigger pipes just end up getting eaten up by HD, rather than regular resolution, video, have we really gained that much?"

And that, I think is a key insight to think about.  Just what is it that 1Gbps enables us to do that creates the value to society that will justify (and pay for) the buildout?

The only existing applications that could conceivably use 1Gbps involve higher and higher resolutions of video traffic, whether in the form of movies or telepresence.  I recall the 90s sitcom Home Improvement, where Tim 'the toolman' Taylor spends his time funneling more power into mundane tasks?  Being able to deliver video reliably and in a useful form is certainly enabling - and 100Mbps will do that with ease.  But just how much value does each further level of resolution generate?  At what point are we simply doing mundane things with unnecessary firepower?  I submit that we would reach the point of diminishing return very quickly, and that leaves us well below true need for 1Gbps.

The media blitz over insufficient broadband speeds is based on variations on the same theme:  we're behind, we're losing the race, we will be at a competitive disadvantage if we don't catch up.  In many ways, it sounds too much like the old 'keeping up with the Joneses' fallacy all over again.  What's missing here is the next killer app - the Mosaic browser, the internet portal, the Google search, the YouTube.  Something radically changes what the internet can DO for us, not simply how fast it can do it.

It's not simply watching TV and movies.  That will move online of course, but it doesn't really change how we live - it just shifts it to a new medium and offers some new bells and whistles.

It's not cloud computing.  Cloud computing is what will allow current infrastructure to scale in a manageable and affordable way for the next killer app, but it isn't the end result.

Telepresence?  Not in its present corporate meeting format, which is a very interesting usage but of limited societal scope.  But I think there is much greater potential down the line for the descendants of telepresence to change how people communicate both with each other and the world.  When those make their way out of high tech corporate meeting rooms and into primary schools, hospitals, fraternity parties, and sporting venues - perhaps that's when 1Gbps to the home will come into its own.

Actually, maybe then we'll need more than that...

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Categories: Fiber optic cable · FTTH · Internet Traffic · Video

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7 Comments So Far


  • colin says:

    The biggest reason to do 1Gbps compared to 100Mbps is that 1G is where the volume market for the components is.

    It also allows for some pretty heavy bursts of traffic, say for live migrating your personal virtual desktop image in and out of the network.

  • Anon says:

    I think this argument misses the point a bit.

    It takes a long time to build ubiquitous network infrastructure to houses – 5 years or more. Until that capability is in place, the applications won’t really start to emerge that use it. Remember how long it took for websites to start taking benefit of xDSL/cable broadband availability in people’s homes? How long have video sharing sites been around? (And how long since these have been actually useable?)

    There needs to be a sufficient user base of high speed Internet homes out there to make any software/application/innovation pay for itself – simple economics. You could argue that the bubble in 2000 in small part was caused by web applications outstripping the capability or ubiquity of residential Internet connectivity at the time.

    I’m all for initiatives that drive high bandwidth to the home, because it takes time and gives an opportunity for innovation to occur. I think it’s naive to expect that someone will invent something so compelling that everyone would be saying, “gosh, I wish I had 1G to my house to be able to use that!” and that then causes billions to be spent doing the fibre buildout to everyone.

    Finally, I bet there are a ton of lessons to learn in doing wide scale gigabit rollouts. Let’s learn them now (as the Japanese are doing, for example).

    • Rob Powell says:

      One could also argue that the bubble was caused by people building vast amounts of backbone capacity that we were unable to turn into value. The last time I heard this level of ‘build first, develop later’ propaganda was 1999.

      I’m not saying we *don’t* need 1Gbps to the home. – hell I’d love to have it. I’m just trying to look ahead and see where we might go with it, and perhaps where it might be a bit safer to invest money to take advantage of it than last time too.

  • Anon says:

    I think the point is that if some sort of high speed broadband to the home is being built, it’s pretty much the same price whether it is gigabit-capable or not. So I don’t believe anyone is taking on a substantial premium by building Gbit today instead of, say, Openreach’s more modest FTTH proposals. If anything, you should get more longevity out of the asset and therefore a better ROI.

    • Anon says:

      Also, you could argue that the “build it and they will come” of 2000 never realised its potential because – among a whole pile of other things – there just wasn’t enough capacity to the home to actually use what was built. (There was, obviously, a whole bunch of other general craziness that contributed, too!)

      This year my employer needs to add around 2Tb of backbone capacity to the IP network and that’s getting increasingly hard to do. In 2000, adding a 10G was almost unheard of. There’s no doubt there was a massive excess to what was built at the time, but nowadays we have the opposite problem, IP transit pricing is so low that the business case to light more backbone capacity is getting hard to make. We may start to see some carriers start to go under because of bandwidth starvation as carriers consume their own fibre instead of reselling it. I have never understood, for example, how Cogent makes money.

  • DaveRusin says:

    It’s what you don’t know, you don’t know.

    Without having a gigabit anything, application developers can’t develop. Investors won’t take risks on investment for those applications. It is called innovation where bandwidth limitations or growth is the fuel.

    Regulators are hurting economic expansion and innovation.

    Get the horse before the cart — fiber first. Get out of the way (regulators) and let the open market sort things out.

  • Anon says:

    As has already been pointed out if FTTH infrastucture is deployed the marginal cost of using 1G interfaces on it rather than 100M are trivial, if not less.

    Also, the bandwidth needs of a average family home are not a single application, but a stat muxing of data from many different applications. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision several HD TV programs or movies on internet connected TV’s, a phone call, music streaming, and web traffic all occurring concurrently in a home with a couple teen-agers. Although that isn’t 1G worth of traffic, it is more than 100M.

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