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The broadband disease

January 2002

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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The history of technologies is full of “miracle solutions” that were supposed to solve all problems. Many inventions and discoveries that really led to major innovations were ignored or misunderstood in their early stages. Others, that were acclaimed as revolutions, disappeared in a few years – or led to results that were completely different from those expected. Mistakes are made even after the fact. For instance at the end of year 2001 there were solemn celebrations in Italy for the centennial of the invention of radio. That’s nonsense. The first long-distance wireless connection made by Guglielmo Marconi on December 12, 1901 was a major step in worldwide communication – but it wasn’t broadcasting. It was telegraph. Radio was a separate development that started as an experiment in 1906 and became operational in 1920.

Now the hype is about broadband. It is said and repeated that the development of the internet is limited by lack of bandwidth. That’s blatantly false – but there are large interests trying to sell us expensive things that we don’t need, including broadband.

In another article I discussed the “traditional” values of the internet that we should not forget. I’d like to add that the net worked much better than it does now when there was much less bandwidth. It was fast and efficient when we used modems with a 2,400 bit-per-second speed (while now 64,000 bps transmission is perceived as “slow” – and some people aren’t satisfied with 640 k).

The increase of bandwidth isn’t due only to a greater availability of means of transportation (cables, satellites, wired and wireless networks). There are technical solutions – such as compression and frequency separation – that make it possible to transmit much larger quantities of information though existing channels. The result is that we have much more bandwidth than we need. It is estimated that only 2 percent of the existing bandwidth is being used – and a lot of that is useless clutter.

Means of data transportation are an over-abundant commodity. Offer exceeds demand by far, while costs are decreasing. In a real “market” this would lead to a sharp drop of prices. But there is a cartel, a sort of telecommunications Opec, a confusopoly that keeps prices artificially high while doing everything it can to persuade us to use uselessly cumbersome solutions to “fill” the available bandwidth.

Some broadband dealers have gone bankrupt, but many make money by force-feeding clutter. Some have lots of bandwidth available, others are re-sellers or profit from inter-connection fees. All try to dream up ways of making traffic heavier. We are constantly pressured to use solutions that nobody needs, prompted by the broadband sellers and their accomplices – as well as people who do not benefit directly from the broadband waste but are misled by the hype.

Of course fast connections aren’t totally useless. They are relevant for some specific uses. The most obvious is television – as well as other audio-visual applications such as teleconferences (but television isn’t the internet – and, more importantly, the internet isn’t television). There are also specialized sectors that need broadband. Engineering, architecture, graphics, publishing and several scientific and technical applications. Solutions to kill (as in the military) or to save lives (as, for instance, remote controlled surgery). Or, more simply, people and organizations who frequently download bulky software.

Broadband is a resource – for the few that really need it. But it makes no sense to offer it to everyone, to charge a much higher price than it deserves and to dream up silly ways of filling it up with useless and cumbersome clutter.

In spite of the pressures and the hype, many people aren’t falling into the trap. In the 30 Oecd countries boadband penetration is less than 2 percent of internet users. For other reasons there is less growth of internet use than in past years. See Slower growth?

It makes no sense to spread the superstition that all solutions must be “multimedia”. That, more often than not, leads to ineffective communication. The basic tool in the internet is text – written words. The most effective communication of content is also the one that uses the least bandwidth. The serious problem is that by concentrating on bandwidth-filling decorations and gimmicks we lose sight of what is really valuable and useful.

“Waiting for broadband” (combined with a lingering could of gloom following the deflation of the stock exchange bubble) is often an excuse for doing nothing, or wasting time and energies in cosmetic “fillers”, appearances at the expense of content, instead of concentrating on what really matters: the quality of information, dialogue and service.

We can learn some interesting lessons from what is know internationally as the broadband fiasco. A particularly good article in this subject What the broadband meltdown tells us was published by Gerry McGovern on December 10, 2001. This is how he explains the problem.

Broadband is great in theory but woeful in practice. It has received extraordinary evangelism and hype over the last ten years. Those promoting broadband have talked glowingly of everything from virtual reality, to video-on-demand, to interactive games, to businesses zipping megabytes of data in seconds.
From the broadband fiasco we can learn some very important lessons. The first lesson is that fast is rarely cheaper and fast isn’t always better. For much of the Nineties the technology industry, and the media that fed off it, behaved like they were taking vast quantities of heavy-duty, mind-expanding drugs. Everything was about speed.
The need for speed and change became an almost religious mantra among many technology pundits. Broadband was the only thing that mattered. In fact, many pushed to design broadband-friendly websites because they fervently believed that broadband was just around that corner.

The second lesson is even more important.

The web needs to be treated for what it is, not for what technologists and graphic designers feel it should be. The broadband mentality skims across the surface of the web, trying to make it all shiny, fancy and hip. This has led to the development of millions of websites that suck. These websites try so hard to be glossy magazines, to be spectacular TV ads. They have failed miserably.
Study after study shows that people who use the web from every continent on this planet don’t want flashy websites. They want functional websites, with pages that download quickly. They want websites that have comprehensive information that is well organized. They want effective search engines. They want quality support. They want purchase processes that are simple and robust.
All these things – all the things that people really want from the web – do not require broadband. Those who have chased the broadband rainbow have failed to recognize the riches that can be gotten from simply laid out, well organized websites. Website design is about comprehensive content, great organization, simple, clear, readable layout. And you don’t need broadband for any of this.

In other words – for most of the best ways of using the internet broadband is useless. But the real problem is even worse. The broadband mythology is a disease. It leads to solutions that are inefficient, cumbersome, boring, irritating and pointless. It’s lack of quality (not lack of bandwidth) that’s getting in the way of internet development.


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