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Broadband Leapfrog: Who Needs Gigabit Broadband Anyway?

by David Mercer | Feb 05, 2009

A decade ago, Korea led the world in rolling out first generation broadband networks. By the early years of this decade more than 80% of homes used broadband services, and today access speeds to households in the major cities are typically 100Mbps. As the US and European countries debate government policy towards upgraded broadband networks, Korea has apparently set a new benchmark that others will struggle to match. The Korea Communications Commission announced this week that it would recommend investment of $24.6bn to enable access speeds to rise to 1Gbps (1000Mbps) in major cities. Smaller cities will have speeds of 50M-100Mbps. The KCC announcement puts into context Lord Carter’s recent “Digital Britain” interim report, which recommends that the UK should adopt a policy that guarantees “up to” (my banned phrase) 2Mbps to every home in Britain. This may be reassuring for remote Scottish hamlets, but is hardly a vote of confidence for the millions of urban households struggling along with under 8Mbps today. My colleague in Korea suggests that the recent KCC announcement is propaganda rather than a major change in government policy, since the backbone in Korea is already capable of supporting 1Gbps fibre to the home services. “There might be some investments on the Edge and some WDM but the major change will be the modem replacements and traffic management.” But even if we are sceptical about the politics, there can be no denying the intention of the Korean government to make sure its people and businesses are support by the most advanced communications networks. The broadband debate again raises the question of the demand for very high access speeds and the objectives of broadband policy makers. The example of Korea suggests that countries could get drawn into a game of broadband leapfrog to win kudos and political brownie points. So what if Koreans can get 1Gbps? What could anyone possibly want to do with that sort of data rate? As many in the US and UK have argued, 2Mbps should be good enough for most things. The problem with these arguments is that there is no way of proving today what applications could emerge if such networks were built. There is no point in seeing broadband purely in terms of today’s applications, which are still largely built around web browsing and low quality streamed video. Sooner or later video will move not just to today’s high definition (720p) but to 1080p and then to Ultra HDTV and beyond. And as Cisco is always telling us, telepresence as a consumer application is going to bring demand for high capacity two-way networks sooner or later. My own view is that there is no question that people will find ways to use bandwidth, however much they are given. Creativity has no limits. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there is economic justification in building new networks, or that new applications will make money. In the end, network investments depend on partnership between government and business, and countries must decide for themselves where the right balance lies. Twitter: twitter.com/dmercer15 Client Reading: Sputnik Moment: The Call for a National Broadband Policy Add to Technorati Favorites
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