After Hours

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Why do people care about bandwidth?

My top 10 reasons why this is a stupid question

Written at Norwich Airport, edited in Amsterdam and dispatched to silicon.com from my Cardiff hotel via free wi-fi at 40Mbps a few days later.

Question: How can someone profess to be IT-literate and then ask: 'Why does anyone want more than 10Mbps?'

Answer: They probably work for a telco!

Yesterday, someone asked me a variation on that same old question I have heard with increasing incredulity these past 40-plus years: 'Why do people want 9.6, 56, 256Kbps, 2, 10, 100 or 1000Mbps?'

Soon it will be 10Gbps and these people still won't get it!

My reply has been fairly consistent but has progressively expanded with the advance of technology.

£6 broadband landline tax

Can you ever really have enough broadband?
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

I always start from recollections of having to wait for days for the output from early mainframe machines, with hours wasted waiting for batch processing and print runs, uploads and downloads.

Life was soo very slooow and productivity was low in those early days!

Then there was the 'online world' lurching forward with dial-up modems at 2.4Kbps, 9.6Kbps and so on, with the cost of international connectivity often overtaking the cost of a hotel room.

So here is my personal shortlist of the benefits of bandwidth, in an attempt to head off at least some of the folks who keep asking me that same dumb question:

  1. Delay kills all forms of human interaction and creativity. Less delay results in more effective interaction, innovation and output, and the relationship is highly non-linear so less delay translates into far more output.
  2. Ubiquitous (and symmetrical) videoconferencing that actually works can dramatically reduce our need to travel.
  3. Real-time (multi-user) collaborative environments can further accelerate (global) creativity and productivity by making virtual teaming a working reality.
  4. Imagine instantaneous access to information sources and resources of all kinds of forms and formats - uploads and downloads.
  5. Cloud computing with all applications and data online would dramatically reduce hardware and software costs, improve security markedly, and spawn new communities, business opportunities and industries.
  6. Virtual and augmented reality would come alive and change absolutely everything from working to entertainment, education, training and healthcare - and we can't even hazard a guess at the scale of improvement to be had.
  7. All forms of modelling and prediction - scientific, industrial, social and so on would be revolutionised by instant access to distributed resources worldwide.
  8. 3D prototyping and distributed production would become real and a part of the mainstream, and ultimately the new mainstream industry.
  9. Real-time access to global radio, TV, movies and other forms of entertainment at our convenience.
  10. Vast tracts of radio spectrum for high-speed wireless apps would become available as services delivered by 'by fibre' reduce the need for services 'by radio'

There you have it: my very specific personal top 10! I can imagine everyone having their own subset and definitions, and if I were to extend the list, then at number 11 it would be multi-player gaming followed by distributed sensor networks, networked robotics and cybernetics, plus of course new interactive industries reliant upon distributed creativity, production and delivery, and much much more!

If you get a spare moment it is worth musing: just what would you do with 1Gbps symmetric broadband?

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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