Broadband superhighway only part of the whole

Jim BartholdSeveral decades ago iconoclastic Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko spent a column railing about cars. The gist of his argument was that car advertisements lie to the public by showing shiny machines running full bore as smiling drivers maneuvered cars through open slaloms of roadway fun.

The point, Royko concluded, is that no one drives under those conditions. Americans, whether they drive BMWs or Hyundais, are stuck with rush hour traffic, red lights, old ladies, old men, distracted young ladies, aggressive young men, cell phone talkers, lipstick appliers, coffee drinkers and daydreamers. There's no fun there's certainly no smiling faces (unless a tightlipped tooth-clenched grimace counts) when Americans climb into their favorite gas/diesel/electric/wind-powered vehicles and head onto the nation's highways.

When you think about it, the same thing can be said about the nation's other highway, the clichéd information superhighway, where broadband is a 2010 Dodge Challenger with a hemi and no one wants a dial-up Kia. But the thing is, like that highway Royko lampooned, there's no smooth sailing on the information superhighway no matter how fast the vehicle can go.

This isn't to say that there should be some favoritism given to some sites so they can move in the commuter lane, or whatever silly analogy is being used these days to say that net neutrality is a drag. And it isn't to say that DOCSIS 3.0 isn't faster than DOCSIS 2.0 or DSL or dial-up. It's to say that, at the end of the route and sometimes at the beginning, what you have is what you have to live with no matter what you drive.

That point was made last week by Hyman Sukiennik, VP-Cox Business, Arizona, in explaining why a superfast 12-mile network link between the Translational Genomics Laboratory and Arizona State University in Phoenix was "settling" for a 10 gigabit connection.

"It's a function of what's hanging on the ends of it and their ability to process it any faster," said Sukiennik. "We're kind of maxed out in what all the pieces can do in terms of their needs and the computing power on both ends of this equation."

The computing power is state-of-the-art. The lab is, after all, breaking down information on an entire human body and digitizing it into one humongous file that would dwarf all the information contained in the Library of Congress. Try doing that with your TRS-80. And it's transferring that information to a core supercomputer at ASU; hardly your Dell laptop there.

And it still takes eight hours to transmit the entire physicality of a human being, all 30 terabytes of information that it is. That's better than the 12 days it used to take.

When those proposing the nation's broadband network gather around the table and dice and slice the regions and what people will be getting in the ways of speeds, it might be nice to temper some expectations. A fourth generation HP computer is not going to suddenly deliver lightning speed data just because it's hooked to a next-generation DOCSIS 3.0 modem attached to a broadband fiber network. It might deliver a comfortable ride, but it's no Jack Bauer downloading the directions to the next villain's lair while weaving through the streets of New York City. For that, you need more than a supercomputer and a fast network; you need the imagination of a pitchman, the next generation of marketer spawned over time from the guys who gave us those car commercials two decades ago.

The reality of broadband is that it is a fast highway with a lot of potholes and detours. To suggest anything else to a gullible public is like suggesting you can drive a Ferrari in Chicago. You can; you just can't drive it fast.