Eyes Above The Waves

Robert O'Callahan. Christian. Repatriate Kiwi. Hacker.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Cheap Broadband Doesn't Matter

A lot of people have the idea that a successful "knowledge economy" requires much cheaper and faster broadband than what we have available in NZ today. I strongly disagree. If that was so, then Japan, South Korea and China would be dominating the United States in software development and Internet services, but they are not, or at least their strength is in volume, not innovation.

This Herald blogger suggests that if only we had faster, cheaper broadband, users would be figuring out amazing things to do with it. I don't understand this argument at all. Users can't do anything with broadband except use services provided by software developers. NZ's network is adequate enough to build and deploy any service developers can think of, and if you want to reach a mass market you can trivially host your services in the USA or elsewhere. (Chris Double in our office runs TinyVid, hosted in the USA, as a hobby, for goodness sake.)

Major research universities in the USA often presented similar arguments to large funding agencies: give us a lot of money to build amazing infrastructure (networks, computers, etc) and cool new ideas will be spontaneously generated. I don't think that was ever really true; the great ideas seem to come from getting smart people together and giving them freedom to work on their interests with adequate supporting infrastructure to experiment on; I can't think of any examples of great ideas that were inspired by a superabundance of infrastructure. Sure, if you had a megabit network and no-one else did, or Unix workstations when everyone else had DOS PCs, you had an edge, but by the mid-90s when I entered grad school at CMU commodity PCs and networks were powerful enough to support cutting-edge research in most areas of computer science. That didn't stop the universities asking for infrastructure money though!

Perhaps I could argue that making it easier to consume software and services is actually a long-term drag on the "knowledge economy". I got into programming because my first computer had almost no software on it and no way to get any more --- so all I could do with it was write my own. How many bright kids are hooked on Facebook, Youtube and game consoles when they could be coding their own dreams into reality?

Based on my experiences I certainly have gripes about problems dragging on NZ's "knowledge economy", but broadband isn't one of them.


Ben Young
Great feedback - that blogger is me :) The point is to make it so cheap that you don't stress about using it, so much in fact you waste it. Case in point transistors and cpus - they got so cheap (ie zero) that people experimented. YouTube? Would never fly 8 years ago as it was too expensive... now bandwidth internationally is magnitudes times cheaper. Thanks for rounding out the argument though - keep it up. -Ben
Robert O'Callahan
*Users* don't experiment with transistors. Even chip researchers do all their experiments in simulators (or at best FPGAs) since it's far too expensive to fab short runs of high-density chips. Also, transistors got cheap because of technological advances, not because of government or public pressure. Again I don't know what the logic of your argument is.
I agree that Youtube needed networks to reach a certain level to be successful. But like I said, if you want to reach the mass market you want to host in the USA anyway, so why does *NZ* need cheaper bandwidth?
The other question is how many future innovations are being blocked by inadequate networks. Who is saying they have a great idea but the only thing blocking them from deploying it is a lack of cheap bandwidth? (BTW "HD video" is not innovation.) Before Youtube there was lots of work on Internet video delivery, and it was clear that this was an application just waiting for the technology to catch up. I'm not aware of any application waiting in the wings for network technology to reach a higher level.
Robert Accettura
I think we're just starting to see what broadband can really do in the US.
Asia is a little different than the western world due to how they consume media and in particular use the Internet. The percentage of time spent on mobile devices is much higher. Hence anyone targeting that market is going to try and optimize their service/tech for being mobile savvy.
In the rest of the world, even with the iPhone we're aren't major mobile users. For almost the entire population we still view iPhones and Blackberries as a away to read email "while away from the computer" as opposed to "how to read email". That's notable. It doesn't seem likely to change either. We'll cling to NetBooks and WiFi before going totally mobile.
The biggest change broadband brings is richer media, video either via conventional web methods like YouTube. Or VOD from your video service (phone, cable, whatever).
Currently the big thing being blocked is VOD over IP. It exists, but it's not in a usable state. I can't buy a movie on iTunes and watch it right away in 1080p. Even if Apple offers it tomorrow my ISP's going to impose bandwidth caps to help keep their costs from getting out of control.
That's not really "innovation".. but it's "business" and business drives innovation.
Does it block innovation? I bet if there was unlimited bandwidth we'd find a way to use it, that always ends up being the case. "640K ought to be enough for anybody".
Do we need cheaper broadband? Yea, I'd say so. More people on broadband means a larger market. That's what drives businesses to fund innovation. Have no market, no reason to innovate.
Only a handful of people innovate for pure science. The rest do it for profit.
I think Ben has a point. Some analogies: Because roads are 'free' and ubiquitous you don't even think about using them and this generates a lot of (economic) activity which is nothing to do with the roads themselves.
Similarly, the free public transport given to the over 65s has given them the opportunity to do a lot of activities that they wouldn't otherwise, because now they don't have to factor in transport. (In some areas, there has been discussion about this free service changing because it has been 'too' popular.)
The argument around the three Asian countries is invalid because the problems are more to do with language and culture than Internet price/performance. In those countries they have thriving Internet communities, admitedly a large proportion to do with gaming, but this is far more advanced than we are able to provide here.
To provide another anology, being in remote NZ, flights off shore are expensive. however, internal flights are cheap. We need to go back to the days (prior to 2003) when only international incoming traffic was counted as part of a bandwidth cap. That would allow services that require lots of bandwidth to become viable. An example being Internet backups.
There are many things that we have not even thought of yet that if the cost of broadband was no longer a factor would be 'invented' by ordinary kiwis, not necesarily trained scientists.
I agree that users don't help build the "knowledge economy" (whatever that is), so that providing more bandwidth to users doesn't seem like it would be useful. But I think it's useful to further explore the issue of how users can become developers, which you touched on briefly. Watching HD video isn't it, obviously. Having access to communities of aspiring developers can help, but that doesn't require lots of bandwidth.
For other types of creative output, e.g. creating and remixing videos, having cheap bandwidth would be useful. Lines of code are quite compact for sure, but there are other things besides of lines of code.
Geoff Langdale
Rob is absolutely correct on this one. I live in Australia and see the same gibberish in the newspapers and on TV all the time: superficially-informed and authoritative people claiming that if we only had massive amounts of cheap bandwidth we'd all suddenly build an amazing knowledge economy.
It's complete, self-serving rubbish.
I don't 'think about using' bandwidth for 99% of activities online: email, occasional chats, web browsing, etc. The only thing that has a real impact on my usage is massive downloads (strictly of Ubuntu distributions, ya hear :-) ).
By analogy, we have a 'road' network already. Got a website that does some new innovative type of business? Well, 99% of your broadband customers can already get to it for a cost that's so low they won't notice.
High bandwidth is for games and downloading movies, music and, let's face it, pirated software and porn. While there may be many innovations possible in these spaces, they don't have much to do with productivity and they are largely substituting for other businesses and activities.
Anyone who disagrees is welcome to point to examples of fabulous scientific visualization 3D videoconferencing hoo-ha (or similar) that would turn backwoods Australians and New Zealanders into world-beating innovators. I presume there is a wave of ferocious innovation pouring out of South Korea of this kind. Right? No, not the South Korea with the amazing number of people playing MMOs. The other one.
Roads were adequate, but then they built motorways and highways. Are you saying this did not spur any economic development?
...I honestly have no opinion on this debate, neither argument seems pretty compelling to me. Transistors are a terrible analogy, but then you don't seem to say much either :/.
Robert O'Callahan
Motorways and highways were built because there was a clear need for them, not because someone thought if we built them we'd one day figure out a use for them.
Thanks for the support Geoff :-).
Hi Patrick! The question of how to let more users become developers is a good one, but I don't think lots more cheap bandwidth is clearly necessary here. I do think that where bandwidth is very asymmetrical, *that* is a problem that should be fixed.
kiwidude: road travel isn't free, far from it ... would you argue that the government should subsidise petrol to make road travel more nearly free, so we can come up with more creative uses of road travel? That analogy totally fails.
I still see a lot of faith here that if we spend a lot of money on the network something amazing will happen, but no real evidence or even a plausible explanation of how it could happen. Just show me a handful of people who have a great idea that can't get off the ground due to the state of today's network.
Damian: I'm not really making an argument. I think the burden of proof is on the people who argue we should be spending a lot more money on the network.
I must admit that I do not live in NZ, so I speak as somewhat of an outsider, however;
I agree with what you say, to a point...
Most end users don't worry too much about bandwidth, checking their hotmail/gmail or whatever, surfing the web etc, they just don't need to worry.
The problem tends to arise when they start doing things like streaming media (here in the UK, the BBC iplayer is the quite possibly one of the main culprits for putting people 'over usage').
Even things like facebook needn't use too much bandwidth to be honest (I say needn't, because as soon as someone starts to play some of the browser games on facebook, it can be a different story!)
I guess what the 'powers at be' are trying to do is push the digital age as much as possibly, in the hope that it will magically cause innovators, whereas in fact I strongly believe that some of the best innovations tend to come from areas that have less infrastructure, rather than more - as this lack of infrastructure tends to encourage more innovation!
I have worked online with seriously good programmers in other countries, who's net connection disconnects them at the drop of a hat, and they certainly more than manage to hold their own despite this. I think the growth of digital commerce on a country per country basis has as much to do with the culture of the countries as it does things like cost and availability of bandwidth!
(Opps, haven't been keeping up with roc's blog lately)
Anywho, Robert is 99% right. It makes as much sense as saying "Small harddrives are killing our knowledge economy!" and then going on to insist that the govt spend a couple of billion on buying every household a 20TB RAID-5 shelf. Imagine what innovations our knowledge economy will come up with for all the extra space!
Or maybe we could create a scheme where every single NZ business gets 50 web servers! Imagine what innovations our knowledge blah blah blah.
Analogies with roads are appealing, but lack the understanding that digital data behaves quite differently from, say, a truck carrying bread. You can't send one loaf to a server in the US and then duplicate it with Akamai or AWS server farm or suchlike. When someone invents a way to transmit physical object over the network, call me back (and I pretty sure a lack of bandwidth isn't what's holding that particular innovation up).
The 1%? Hmmm - internet backups. Although, considering it for a second, I think I'd rather have the 20TB RAID-5 shelf for that too... I'll go and see my local member of parliament immediately! RAID shelves should be free* dammit!
(* free, in this context, obviously meaning I don't take 4 seconds to consider where the govt comes up with these billions to throw around. Look - I saved 4 seconds!)
Falafulu Fisi
Good point Robert. This issue has been pushed by a few in the society because they know that it would be good for them. However, as Brian Fallow's article on the Herald today, stated, there has never been a cost/benefit analysis been done by this National government. It is being pushed as purely based on altruism and based on sound economics.