Businessweek's Arik Hesseldahl writes today about the upcoming growth in consumer bandwidth, already available to some through Verizon's $180-a-month 30 Mbps/5Mbps FIOS service. Comcast and other cable carriers are testing DOCSIS 3.0 technology, a data-over-cable system, that can deliver 150 Mbps download speeds, though there is no schedule for commercial release.
However, Hesseldahl asks the wrong question, the same wrong question that contributed to the lopsided consumption-centric Internet we have today when it was asked 15 years ago at the dawn of the Internet era:
But once you have 100Mbps or more available at home, what the heck are you going to do with all that bandwidth? For the average consumer, 6Mbps should more than suffice for today's typical needs, whether it's downloading music, watching the occasional video, or even running a home network that lets two or three computers do the same all at once. Does anyone really care whether that song download from iTunes (AAPL) takes 10 seconds or 2 seconds?
PCs are not televisions. Consumption of music and movies is certainly one thing a person might do with their broadband connection, but if they don't also have the ability to earn money with it, the economy we dream of will collapse. Yet, the discussion persists in questions like Hesseldahl's, which focus only on consumption.
The issue is not how long it takes to download anything, because consuming data is the least important aspect of the digital economy. Producing income with an Internet connection demands higher upstream speeds, so that people in the home and small offices can tap into the evolving network of Web services with minimal latency and little cost. Ultimately, every PC should be a server, if in fact the devices are really crafted to help individuals be efficient and productive.
It should not be the case that anyone wanting to do business "on the Net" should have to have a rack at a co-location facility or rent capacity on a server. They might want to do that to reach huge scales of transactions, but like most small businesses the nut is made on a few transactions a day or week. Upstream capacity from the home or small office should suffice for most of these applications, but the network has been built out mostly to deliver content rather than make everyone a digital contributor.
Granted, the "consumer-generated media" is a reaction to that, but it is an infrastructure built on intermediaries who monopolize revenue and user data. We've been provided some value, such as free hosting of pictures and video or the ability to visit as site with a list of our friends, but that isn't the foundation of an economy as much as the basis for a few companies to build market caps in the billions of dollars.
Back in 1994, Vinnie Grosso and I spoke at the Doors of Perception Conference on this topic. Vinnie was AT&T's broadband TV guru at the time, while I was the "skeptic" who was promoting equal up- and downstream bandwidth to the home to facilitate economic earning from the edge of the network.
The Doors of Perception site characterized the meeting as one of distrust (because I crossed my arms in the picture above, which was due to my bad back, not my feelings toward Vinnie, who is a great guy). There was some weird goings on with a "chariot of pigs," too, but that is another story.
History has borne out my concern, that the economic benefits of the Web have not been as egalitarian as they could be if the emphasis was broader than how to get people to consume more digital stuff. The exceptions to the rule that big companies capture most of the value in the network, including creators like Ze Frank and all the sites living off of gaming Google and selling through eBay and Yahoo Marketplace, only prove that much broader returns on digital infrastructure are possible.
But we keep asking, over and again, how fast we want to download a movie or a song. The question is how fast we want our computers to talk on our behalf to make a buck. If we want to enjoy the benefits of low-latency interaction, we need much faster upstream connectivity. Then, business will be on a level playing field with people who will be free to choose when, where and how to work.