Storm clouds approaching as bandwidth becomes scarce

Jim BartholdAs a teenager, I once sat in a car with my family and watched two thunderstorms approach from two directions. This meteorological impossibility--at least to my teenaged mind--left me wondering aloud what would happen when the storm streaming south along the Atlantic Ocean coastline collided with the one turning north from Delaware Bay.

Believe it or not, the storms lived up to their potential. As they collided there was a blinding burst of lightning followed by a tympanic crash of thunder and a torrential rainfall.

"I guess we know what happens when two storms come together, huh?" my always low-key father drily deadpanned as we sat there enthralled by nature.

Today, as an old man, I sit at my desk and ponder what will happen when two other seemingly unstoppable storms collide: the lack of bandwidth, whether wired or wireless, and the gadget-fueled demand for more bandwidth to drive more applications.

My guess is that you'll hear a deafening crash followed by a lot of moaning as injured parties slam their iPads to the ground and cable and other bandwidth service providers tear at their hairshirts over the inability to push still more bandwidth down those HFC/twisted pair pipes or raise their fists to the sky cursing broadcasters who would not let go of spectrum they claim is necessary to ply their over-the-air trade.

Either way, it won't be pretty and it will, unlike that fluke of nature I witnessed as a teenager, be manmade. It is, after all, man that is building all these neat devices and encouraging users to go and get bandwidth-hungry applications like penny candy in an old-time candy store. And it's service providers who, having built what they claimed were limitless networks, are trying to put the candy lovers on a diet by throttling their bandwidth. And yes, it's even the recalcitrant broadcasters who are holding tight to their spectrum because there just might be a dollar to be made on things as obscure as mobile digital TV, which, of course, would be yet another app on a bandwidth-deprived wireless device.

Cable is struggling mightily to either upgrade all its networks or find new ways to pump more content through what's already there via clever new technology like DOCSIS 3.0.

All of these storm clouds are swirling as bolts of lightning and claps of thunder pepper the air around them.

Pow! Cable is struggling mightily to either upgrade (again) all its networks or find new ways to pump more content through what's already there via clever new technology like DOCSIS 3.0. At the same time, it's abandoning any notion that bandwidth is limitless and is putting limits on usage.

Blam! Companies like Netflix that have grown up with the idea of using that unlimited broadband pipe to deliver services that (and here's a display of naiveté worth noting) compete with cable and take away cable subscribers are now finding that the bandwidth is not unlimited and cable is not that willing to help a company with the goal of stealing cable subscribers.

Boom! Phone companies that thought they could wring just that extra meg more from aging twisted pair networks carrying DSL are facing a torrent of angry users who want more speed and bandwidth and are unlikely to get it.

Whoosh! Fiber-rich providers like Verizon FiOS are climbing to the high ground (for now) with unlimited plans. Who knows how long that will last?

Pop! Bubbles are bursting for wireless carriers who thought that they would one day rule the broadband world but are increasingly dependent on wireline providers to backhaul their traffic.

What's it all mean? It means that the U.S., already mired in a non-leading slump among international broadband delivery, is in trouble. It means that the FCC and Congress, at loggerheads over whether to physically wrest spectrum from broadcasters or, heaven forbid, make those who own spectrum actually use it for the common good, will have to compromise--as if that's ever going to happen in a political atmosphere more highly charged than the innards of a thundercloud.

Finally, it means that there is an opportunity for vendors--generally at the mercy of the service providers--to provide the technologies that will be the umbrellas that keep everyone from getting soaked in a broadband debacle downpour. Of course, those vendors will need to invest in R&D and will need to quiet shareholders who don't like R&D and a stock market that punishes R&D.

With all these factors, there's not nearly as much wonderment what will happen when these two thunderstorms collide: it's going to be a helluva show.--Jim