Fat Pipes, Fibers, and Foolishness

Posted 12/5/95

We want to trade our surfboards for racing boats!
You can never be too rich, have too much RAM, or too much bandwidth.

The cable operators are whining again. Bell Atlantic is experimenting with video on demand services somewhere in Virginia, and the cable companies are crying to their sugar daddies in the government. "Make them stop!", they cry. "The phone companies are subsidizing their entertainment distribution with higher phone rates!" What the cable operators are really saying is they are scared of competition. Like the kid that is the star high school running back being afraid to go to college, because then he will be compared with a lot of people who are better players, and become an average varsity running back. For years, the highest bandwidth information channel into the most number of homes has been the cable TV feed. I'm not saying they have been pumping the most useable information down that pipe. The issue of content is separate. Bsue of content is separate. But for now, let's talk about the bits. 100 channels of analog data, each several Megahertz wide, can be sent down the coax into your home. And the resulting signals can be reasonably clear.

Almost every home in the country has another information service coming through the wall, which, although currently carrying much lower bandwith, (several KHz) has several advantages. One is that it is bi-directional. Not that CATV can't be, but the distribution system is dotted with amplifiers, all pushing the signal toward you and away from MTV. The other advantage is that it is hooked into a huge world-wide distribution infrastructure. You are probably using it right now, as I am to get this file to the server you got it from. The telephone companies have been aggressively upgrading their distribution networks to use fiber optic cabling for years now, since it requires less maintenance (as long as people remember to call Miss Utility), can carry a staggering amount of information, and doesn't require amplifiers every few hundred yards. And still, it is designed for full duplex (simultaneous 2-way) communication. Did I say staggering? According to the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia,

Fiber optic technology uses a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Fiber optic cable installed in the 1980s has an information capacity of 400Mb/s. pacity of 400Mb/s. A single strand can carry up to 15,000 phone calls and has a video capacity of 160 channels; copper, by comparison, can carry only 24 phone calls and has a video capacity of 78 channels.

Now, theres a big difference. And there is another point that needs mentioning; namely that the telephone network is already largely digital. The only part still carrying analog signal is the part closest to the subscibers. And that is changing, with the increasing availability of ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network). When they lay fiber, they lay multicore cables, not single strands, so the potential bandwith is very big.

Contrast with a typical CATV network, with a single copper cable for each branch, going through many amplifiers and splitters, and all carrying analog data in one direction. The head end is linked to a receive-only satellite dish and not to any other cable company. This "network" is simply not designed for interactivity and digital delivery. Cable providers are gradually upgrading to fiber distribution paths, and some are even talking about providing internet connectivity, but they are only playing catch-up. They only recently figured out that the futures of entertainment and high speed digital communications are intertwined. The phone companies knew this all along. Granted, when cable companies do get to the point of providing this service, things will rvice, things will be a little more even.

The big problem is that traditionally, cable providers have been in the enviable position of having market exclusivity. (The content issue rears it's ugly little head about now, as you say, "Uncle John, I'd rather watch Nick at Nite than read your insane ramblings!" I say go read a book then.) City councils arrange contracts for cable companies to provide both the physical plant and the content on a city wide basis; these contracts, once in place, are very rarely seriously challenged. The result is that the operators have been given free reign to treat customers however they wanted, and the customer's only recourse has been to take it or leave it. This is true with the phone companies as well, at least in the case of the basic infrastructure. The difference has been that the telcos have not been responsible for content, and they are expected to provide a minimum quality of service. The telephone network is considered to be a necessity, the CATV services are still in the luxury category. There has not been nearly the same pressure put on the cable industry in terms of expected quality of signal, and almost no pressure in terms of content. Except from Pat Robertson and his ilk, see my previous ramblings on that.

Since the breakup of AT&T, the long distance market has been opened up to fierce competition, and enterprise wide PBd enterprise wide PBX's have become as common as people at home owning their own equipment and internal cabling. All this used to be courtesy of, and owned by Ma Bell. Now the cable companies are seeing the beginnings of the availability of choices for not only the physical means of pumping the data, but for the data itself. And they are really afraid they will come out losing.

At this point I will mention Satellite Television. The satellite TV providers have been gently chipping away at the cable companies' profits for years, but only recently have they become a real threat. Ku band DSS service, with 150 channels of digital video and stereo CD quality audio makes the typical service provided by the local CATV provider look little better than what you can get with "rabbit ears." But not everyone wants even an 18" dish, and most people want to receive local broadcast stations, so the cable industry cried a little, but they still felt they had the upper hand.

Enter the Big, Bad Phone company. With wires into all the homes with cable and then a whole lot more without, and the potential high-bandwidth "fat pipe" with which to move lots of digital signals back and forth, and the capability to carry local broadcast stations as well as any other feed, easy connections to the internet, (not to mention plain old telephone calls) and who can send you one bill every month to pay for all of youray for all of your communications services, and the cable company has a right to be scared. Very scared.

As for content, every phone line goes back to the central switch separately. This allows the telcos to do something the CATV providers cannot, which is provide content "al la carte." Buy the Weather Channel for 15 minutes, then pay for CNN Headline for 30 minutes, then browse the Web for a couple hours, and switch over to ABC when it's time for "Home Improvement." The whole time you are doing this, you are downloading "Clerks" to watch later. There is no satellite dish, and if there is a problem with your connection, you won't have to wait for business hours on Monday, which you would have to take off from work in order to wait for the service person the entire day only to have him arrive after you would have been home anyway. Which is the kind of service most people expect and receive from the cable company. The telephone company's world wide network also allows you get any program in the world when and if you want it. Which means no more writing letters to the cable company begging them to carry the "All Elvis Channel" or "Headline Sumo Wrestling."

There is something the CATV companies can do, although I doubt that they will do it soon. That is start making a real effort to make the service competitive with the wave that is starting to break on their cto break on their city council-reinforced headwall, pay attention to the desires and concerns of their customers, and take the intrusion of others into their markets as a challenge to bring future technologies and services to the public before the telcos get ramped up. If they wait, they will die. So sad...

Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 by John M. Meyer. All rights reserved. The Alien Mind is not associated with any earthly company or its products.

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