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True, we may have come a long, long way from those thankfully bygone days of insufferable 300-baud modem speeds and the woefully congested traffic on the information superhighway resulting in endless downloads for a 10-second soundbyte. But where are the online virtual reality malls? Where is the true interactive television? Where are the instantaneous multi-application transfers?

The truth is, even as countries seem to be defecting to the Internet by the hour and per capita bandwidth demand skyrockets, for all the talk of imminent broadband access, legions of would-be adopters still go without. Carriers vie for global telecom domination, investing in state-of-the-art networks comprised of transcontinental backbones and transoceanic cables, but bandwidth paucity persists. And it's not because the technology isn't there, says Ron Young, vice president of marketing and business development at Yipes, a San Francisco-based Internet service provider. "Everyone under the sun is laying fiber-optic backbones," he says. "At the same time, all the engineers at Lucent and elsewhere are getting more communications through a single strand of fiber with exponential increases. But every piece of traffic has to stop to get through the phone company. The phone company is the bottleneck."

Compared to the hype, today's dial-up connection speeds seem anemic at best. Blame it on the "last mile," or the link between broadband service providers and individual homes and PCs. And whether ultra-capacity pipes number in the tens or the thousands, without the physical link between you and a broadband service provider, you're lucky to get 56K from an analog modem. So basically, you can live right off the freeway, but if there's no nearby exit ramp, you'd better get out the map.

Bottlenecks and Roadblocks

The good news is that broadband is available in select areas; the bad news is that "select" translates to "very few." Bandwidth-intensive applications- such as streaming video, streaming audio, and videoconferencing--require very big pipes, and 56K modems just don't cut it.

"If you're running a business and trying to transmit data in an ambitious way--videos of plants or a video teleconference--bandwidth becomes an issue," says Frank O'Connell, former CEO of Gibson Greetings and Reebok.

"We're 18 months to two years off in terms of there being sufficient bandwidth for streaming video," says O'Connell, currently a director of electronic greeting company Egreetings Network. "That's what's holding personal penetration of the, consumer down, PCs in the household down."

The reason for the delay is not that backbone links can't handle it; rather, there are gigantic tracts of land to be tamed in the last mile, the final relay from the service provider to the customer's location.

"Waiting for something to download is about the local access network. People are building humongously long and difficult submarine cables that cross the mighty oceans, but in actual fact, it's the network down the street that's the problem," says Stephen Young, author of International Bandwidth 2000 and principal consultant at Ovum, a research and consulting company specializing in IT and telecoms. Which is why the upgrade truck may tarry still longer before treating you to the more spacious traveling quarters of DSL (digital subscriber line), cable-modem, or fixed-wireless technologies.

"There is going to be plenty of capacity on the intercontinental routes, we've seen it on the transatlantic routes and now the transpacific route is following," says Young. "But the real problem remains the local access network. DSL will be the vehicle that provides the ability to get residential access to larger bandwidth applications."

Computers Hum, Stomachs Growl

Ovum predicts a nearly five-fold increase in Internet connections by 2005, a mid-decade achievement of 224 million, compared with 56 million connections in 1998. What's more, some sources, such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), predict that data traffic will nearly double every 100 days for the foreseeable future.

Internet users steadily demand more of existing resources as applications grow into increasingly bandwidth-intensive life forms. "There are more people who are spending more time online, and they're doing more things with more applications while they're online," says Young.

According to Tim Kelly of the ITU, the present-day Internet user spends 30 hours a month on the Internet, amassing a 6.5 Gbyte bandwidth total for the month. The consumer of the future will boost the hours to 50 hours a month and likely average a 190 Gbyte-per-month streaming media habit.

Mobile Internet use will propel traffic levels even higher. In Europe and Japan, where wired installations often require extremely long waiting lists and high price tags, cell phones are seemingly ubiquitous. Fortify the phones with wireless Internet access and, presto--you have yourself a mobile Internet device that lends itself to the growing masses of cellular customers.

European WAP-enabled devices and Japanese iMode phones introduce the Internet to wherever a human hand grips a cellular phone, though Web surfing on the tiny display is severely limited. Unless a user's tolerance for downloading delays is of saintly proportions, use of the devices for stock quotes, e-mail messages, and weather information is more realistic than for image-heavy Web pages that overwhelm low-bandwidth connections.

In Japan, iMode phones by NTT DoCoMo can perform telephone banking, airline reservations, stock transactions, e-mail, and other Internet functions. With sales of 6 million iMode phones since introduction in February 1999, mobile Internet access in Japan shows no signs of slowing. The iMode phones don't use the WAP protocol or its programming language, but rather a simplified version of HTML.

"We don't see the need for bandwidth decreasing. With all the 3G applications coming, more bandwidth is needed. People use up whatever's available with streaming media," says Madelyn Smith, communications director of Asia Global Crossing.

The popularity of wireless Web-capable PalmPilot VIIs has many looking to a proliferation of similar wireless information devices that free the consumer from the clunky desktop computer. These machines are generally only capable of 9.6 Kbps speeds, much lower than dial-up connections, but phone manufacturers say that all phones will be Internet-enabled by 2002--and even at 9.6 Kbps, that's a lot of traffic.

"There is already wireless congestion," says Jeanne Schaaf, senior analyst at the Forrester Group. "You can encounter problems in that last mile on wireless today, so that will only be exacerbated by increasing demands on wireless that come with Internet enablement of a wireless device."

Text and pictures from the Web and e-mails generate the bulk of the global traffic loads. It's a trend that's likely to continue, as increasing numbers of consumers migrate online. Other applications on the Internet eat up more bandwidth faster, but none are utilized with such high frequency. "Everyone's talking about the next killer app, but no one knows what it is," says Ovum's Young. "Mostly the traffic's simply pictures and text on the Web, just HTTP."

The Cart and the Horse

So the kindling is in place and the matches are dry--but a fire needs oxygen to spread. An application like streaming video cannot exist in an atmosphere of low bandwidth levels. Internet evangelists preach the distribution of all forms of multimedia over IP, or Internet protocol, but the religion loses its fever when video frames arrive in erratic order and transmissions prove impossible to decipher.

Sam Reed, CEO of packaged food giant Keebler Foods in Elmhurst, IL, is open to incorporating videoconferencing over IP, but his motive is to provide better service, rather than to cut costs. And he says he'll get in line for new communications technology, such as voice over the Internet, once it demonstrates a useful purpose and proves itself of high quality. "The great thing about it is that even if it's not ready yet, at the pace these things progress, you know you won't be waiting long," says Reed.

Meanwhile, new service models inspire new industries. Recalling the mainframe-terminal model of the '70s, ASPs promise to revolutionize application use. Like connecting to a central brain, subscribers connect over IP protocol on the Internet and access a software program from a centralized server. Contracts with the software providers specify payment either per-use or by the month.

"How productive is it to have a team of MIS guys wandering around constantly going from station to station for basic upgrades of Word and PowerPoint?" asks Yipes' Young. Hassle-free updating of centralized software fundamentally streamlines the MIS to-do list.

When Giants Move

Customers get involved when a technology solves a problem or demonstrates economic advantage--the same goes for carriers. Established carriers don't move a muscle until they see what they'll gain from the exertion. But when they get moving, they generate serious velocity.

San Antonio, TX-based SBC Communications, one of the seven original regional Bells, has kept an eye on the pioneering efforts of alternative service providers, also known as competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs). The waiting period has expired, however, and SBC now takes decisive action.

"In any given month, SBC is adding more customers than the collective total of CLECs in a year," says Tom Nolle, president of consulting firm CIMI Corp. Citing a CLEC installation projection of 6 million by 2010, Nolle expects former Baby Bells to contribute the substantial numbers, estimated at 70 million.

Nolle predicts a disastrous shakeout of telecom players in the next two to three years. "More fiber already exists in routes than there's any possibility of consuming," he says. Multiple end-to-end, competing global networks are under construction, but the market may not support several players. Of the dozen or so carriers lassoing continents together with fiber, only two or three will survive in the matured global data carrier market to come. Likening the fate of unsuccessful networks to ghost-town networks, Nolle predicts that "eventually there will be stranded fiber--we're overbuilding."

Not so, says Hemant Vaidya, VP of data and Internet services at SBC Communications. "History has shown that people will always find new ways to use available bandwidth."

Vaidya's employer is betting big on the business of bandwidth delivery with its $6 billion Project Pronto initiative, which installs 3,000 to 5,000 DSL lines per day. Currently at 14 million DSL connections, SBC plans to extend broadband connectivity to over 18 million by the end of 2000.

On the business front, San Francisco-based Yipes is a new generation of service provider that offers flexibility in ordering band-width. Where businesses once had to jump from a 1.5 Mbps T1 connection to a 45 Mbps T3 connection even if all they wanted was 3 Mbps, Yipes provisions bandwidth on a more granular basis, scaling up megabit by megabit. Yipes fills a long-time void; the problem is that it has a foothold in only nine markets nationally, so it isn't realistically going to be the solution for every business.

DSL & Cable Modems

Two especially innovative adaptations of existing infrastructures can partially relieve the pent-up demand for broadband access. Using equipment already dug into the ground and wired into homes, apartments, and businesses, the copper lines of the telephone network and cable-TV systems now moonlight as last-mile data networks. The phone system needs tweaking in some spots for support of DSL, and cable-TV systems require some modification for the demands of broadband content, but both are cheaper than construction from scratch.

"DSL is overwhelmingly the main solution to bandwidth deprivation," says Nolle. Some industry observers believe that in five years, just about anyone that can put their money up on the table will have connections that support broadband applications.

Both DSL and cable-modem technologies can offer the 1.5 Mbps rates that a business T1 line would deliver. Prices (typically $30-$40 per-month for cable modems, $40-$80 permonth for DSL) come in significantly lower than the possible $500 to $1,500 per-month expense for a T1 line, though neither are as reliable as a T1.

Cable-modem subscribers enjoy lower costs, but due to the network's configuration, security can be compromised through shared access. DSL has the advantage of providing exclusive, dedicated connections, but both systems can fall prey to hacker exploits, as they employ "always-on" connectivity to the Internet with consistent, or "fixed," IP addresses.

Other alternatives exist, of course, and some ditch the wireline idea altogether. Fixed wireless sends data over radio frequencies and can ease congestion in the last mile without having to dig up a square inch of asphalt. However, wireless transmission requires a line-of-site connection between transceiver points, which can be problematic, especially in areas of marked elevation changes and frequent foul weather.

"Wireless is more expensive and less reliable, but it's around," says Lisa Pierce, senior analyst at consultancy Giga Information Group. "It maxes out at 384 Kbps, which is under T1 and DSL, but many businesses can be fine with 384K. Most business only need e-mail text with attachments.

Internet Growth Happens

Even businesses that resist the "e-" in front of their corporate logos will use the Internet for increasing numbers of functions in the next decade. Carriers have anticipated huge usage levels, and once consumers can enjoy convenient broadband access, the pipes should get a workout. Until then, the much-hyped video, audio, and network-based applications of the Web will elude most consumers. The demand is there, but when it comes to bandwidth, existing phone lines more closely resemble go-cart motors than turbo-engine data networks, and only time and money will change that.

ROB KIRBY, reporter and copy/production editor at Network Magazine, frequently writes on telecommunications and networking topics.


ASP (application service provider): a service provider that leases applications over the Net on a usage or subscriber basis.

Cache server: a server that stores Web content for frequently accessed pages, often at opposite ends of long-distance links.

DSL (digital subscriber line): a technology that makes use of existing copper phone lines to deliver higher bandwidth connections through digital transmission (voice employs analog signal transmission).

IP (Internet protocol): the protocol that the Internet is based on. Data is sent in small packets that can take any number of routes before reassembly at the destination.

Last mile: the link from the service provider's network to the consumer's location that often proves to be the bottleneck for Internet access.

Unbundling: a regulatory issue between CLECs (competitive local exchange carriers) and ILECs (incumbent local exchange carriers) wherein CLECs want ILECs to unbundle, or make available, their network infrastructures at wholesale rates.

VoIP (voice over IP): voice communications transmitted over the Internet as digital signals, as opposed to more common analog voice traffic.

WAP (wireless access protocol): a specification that standardizes the way wireless devices, such as cellular telephones, operate with the Internet.


Transoceanic cable projects are no small hit to the coffers of global telecom providers: fiber build-outs set investors back $75 to $1,500 per meter and transatlantic runs can stretch 14,000 km, with transpacific links averaging distances of 20,000 km. However, carriers such as Williams, Qwest, Global Crossing, AT&T, Level 3, FLAG Telecom, 360networks, MCI WorldCom, and other telecom providers invest heavily in such cable projects, as much to access new regions as to be able to call the shots on their own links.

FLAG Telecom is laying cable fast and furiously. One undersea investment, FLAG Atlantic-1, will add 4.8 Tbps (or terabits per second; one megabit equals 1 million bits; a gigabit, 1 billion bits; and a terabit, 1 trillion bits) of bandwidth along its 14,500 km length by June 2001. Another project, Pacific-1, will furnish a capacity of 10.2 Tbps of bandwidth, extending a whopping 22,000 km by its early 2002 ready date.

Impressive as that is, Global Crossing has even greater ambition: a blueprint for a global network comprised of over 160,000 km of fiber. Pancontinental loops in Europe and between North America and South America will fortify a strong position in both regions. In addition to transatlantic and transpacific projects, Global Crossing is also constructing an 80 Gbps terrestrial line through Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Taiwan. The 18,740 km East Asia project expects to be operational by the first half of 2001. An upgrade could ramp backbone speeds up to 2.56 Tbps and will include connectivity with China, if regulations permit.

The Asia-Pacific region should know no backbone congestion after the transpacific Japan-U.S. Cable Network (JUSCN) and the regional Asia-Pacific Cable Network 2 (APCN2) fork over the respective 640 Gbps and 2.56 Tbps that previous announcements have promised. The JUSCN seeks to connect Japan, Hawaii, and the U.S. mainland by the end of 2000. The 19,000 km APCN2 will connect to Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and others by October 2001.
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Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
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Date:Aug 1, 2000
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