Broadband Net: Not So Fast

Here's the plan: Over the next few years, millions of Internet subscribers trade in their dial-up modems for broadband connections with 30 times the horsepower. Unfettered by tiny access pipes, the public network instantly transforms into the universal venue for communications, commerce, entertainment and social expression by creating a new kind of public forum.

Here's the plan: Over the next few years, millions of Internet subscribers trade in their dial-up modems for broadband connections with 30 times the horsepower. Unfettered by tiny access pipes, the public network instantly transforms into the universal venue for communications, commerce, entertainment and social expression by creating a new kind of public forum.
-by Joe McGarvey, Inter@ctive Week

16 May 2000 - Unless the opening of the access portion of the Internet is accompanied by overhauls in other areas of the public network, however, experts warn that a not-so-funny thing is going to happen on the way to the forum.

"The access portion of the network has had limited ability to exploit transport resources," says Tom Nolle, president of research firm CIMI. "Because of that limitation, transport providers have been immunized from making logical changes that would support broadband access. All of a sudden, these limitations go away."

The effect of an expected and accelerated widening of access lines through the mass deployment of Digital Subscriber Line technology, cable modems and fixed wireless devices, Nolle says, is the exposure of several weak links in the Internet infrastructure. Already stressed by the demands of millions of modems with top download speeds of 56 kilobits per second, the infrastructure is in danger of seizing like an oil-deprived engine when consumers and businesses move to 1-megabit-per-second or faster access gear.

Experts identify at least three areas of the content supply chain that will need an overhaul to accommodate the demands of broadband subscribers. The three potential choke points are the Web servers dishing out the content, the intersections of the Internet backbone - known as peering points - and the pipes Internet service providers (ISPs) use to shuttle subscriber requests into the Internet.

"In my mind, the biggest issue is at the content site," says Chris Ancell, vice president of professional services at Service Metrics, which measures the performance of the Internet.

Ancell says subscribers freshly empowered with broadband pipes will demand applications that can fill them, such as videoconferencing and high-quality video and audio streaming. Sites that cater to broadband users, which currently represent a small and elite class of subscriber, could face several problems in scaling their operations to meet mass-market demands.

"Those types of applications would continue to test everyone in terms of how you achieve and maintain performance levels," Ancell says. "Those applications will be much more sensitive to performance problems."

Provided that Web sites can figure out how to meet subscriber demand, there's still no guarantee that data will make it to their televisions or PCs in a timely fashion. Although carriers and service providers are building out backbones capable of transferring billions of bits of data per second, the exchange points of the Internet - where two networks overlap to exchange data - need an update.

Critical crossroads

In anticipation of a broadband revolution, carriers and service providers seem to be more willing to throw resources at these critical crossroads of the public network. For example, backbone provider Cable & Wireless is both upgrading public peering points and investing resources in a new breed of exchange points provided by Equinix and others.

"We're improving the traditional public network points and working with new exchange points," says Dave Savino, director of Internet Protocol product marketing at Cable & Wireless USA.

A little bit closer to the subscriber, another potential roadblock is lurking.

Service providers that have spent the past few years optimizing their backbone connections to deliver a bandwidth-efficient dial-up access service will have to start from scratch as they begin replacing dial-up modems with broadband equipment.

"Broadband access is a whole new world compared to dial-up," says Steve Getz, vice president of the broadband access group at CrossKeys Systems, which makes management software for ISPs.

The major problem for service providers is that the data pipe connecting its point of presence to the Internet is suddenly insufficient to accommodate demand from subscribers. Widening that pipe poses problems, one of which is that it requires an investment in capital.

If the broadband plan is ever to become reality, service providers, carriers and content providers will need lots of help.

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