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Beyond Broadband, Beyond Borders

By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist

If you look at a digest of broadband news — as I frequently do in search of story ideas — it’s clear that broadband adoption is taking off. Google search a country name and “broadband,” and you’re more than likely to get an article proclaiming that its government, grasping the economic value of high-speed connectivity, is funding, or considering funding deployment to serve both its urban and rural citizens.

With more countries making that commitment, the world is truly creating what Cisco calls the borderless network.

But what happens when broadband is everywhere? The geographical advantages that used to support great cities – such as rivers or railroads – have faded. People are realizing that they can work anywhere.

Facebook Co-Founder Eduardo Saverin, a native of Brazil, reportedly renounced his U.S. citizenship to save on capital gains taxes after the IPO and moves to Singapore, Industry analyst Rob Enderle is building a second home/retirement home in Belize, but he will still be connected. Though he writes that technology may be an issue, it sound as though he has enough contingency plans that he won’t be digitally stranded.

I am neither as wealthy as Saverin nor as ambitious as Enderle, but I do have a fantasy of taking a one-year post-retirement swing around the world, getting familiar with one city each month for twelve months. Recently while I was wondering how to pay for it, a friend suggested I do it before I retire.

The fact is, it’s innately possible for me to do interviews via Skype or mobile phone, and file stories electronically. The biggest gating factor would be keeping track of time zones, and that’s what www.timeanddate.com is for. If everyone has broadband, and broadband provides a tide that lifts all boats, then economically, the world becomes more equal.

People can work in Vienna, Virginia or Vienna, Austria. They can work in Hobart, Oklahoma, or Hobart, Tasmania. By the way, we’re looking forward to your stories, Lionel Walters.

All the Freedoms that You Can Imagine

But even bigger than the economic ramifications are the political ramifications. Connectivity leads to communication, and communication sometimes leads places totalitarian governments don’t like. Consider the historical context: The invention of the printing press led to the Enlightenment, while television broadcasts from the West helped provoke the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This isn’t idealistic mumbo-jumbo. In a recent issue of Time, its editors wrote, “As broadband spreads, more foreign media firms are peddling press freedom.” The article cited multiple examples:

  • In China, notorious for government-controlled access, microbloggers are protesting on state-controlled news sites
  • Brazil recently enacted a whole new spate of free press laws
  • In Russia, younger citizens turning to the Internet for impartial news
  • In Egypt, the Arab Spring uprisings have spawned a whole new media market

The article also cites increasing press freedom is increasing in a number of other countries, including India, South Africa, and Turkey.

What will broadband lead to next? It’s clearly hard to give citizens freedom of communication without also giving them freedom of speech. Freedom of speech underscores a whole lot of other freedoms that the U.S. constitution protects: freedom of religion, right of free assembly, freedom to speak against the government. I’m not suggesting that we replicate the U.S. government with all its dysfunctions across the world, but the freedoms embodied in its constitution are worth promulgating.

Beyond the democracy that the constitution promises is another freedom, generally promised by capitalism. That’s the freedom to work. Many first-world countries today worry about unskilled labor infiltrating their borders, but they have no such concerns about skilled labor.

An ancillary benefit of broadband besides communication is education. A citizenry’s ability to gain a well-rounded education and practical skills provides liberation in and of itself, a freedom to learn and thrive without having to uproot oneself and one’s family.

Broadband could have no better legacy.

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20 Comments.


  1. Howard,

    I agree. But the problem with this vision is that broadband roll-out is stifled by the vertically integrated carriers. Broadband is most areas could be far more prevelant, cheaper and faster than it is today. Look at sonic.net. They can price 1 gig at $70 because they have a horizontal model and understand their marginal costs.

    Michael

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    • David Deans

      @Michael, point taken, regarding the way that the inherent cost of attaining local broadband services can be a gating-factor for many people who have yet to reap its benefits. That’s why broadband stimulation investment policy needs to be adapted to each local market environment — relative to the recognized leading global peer-market comparisons (South Korea, France, Hong Kong, etc).

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  2. As a disruptive force, compare broadband and electricity. It was electricity that enabled so many people to come together in large city employment centers. Electricity changed the landscape of cities by powering elevators and air conditioning for the for tall buildings. Now broadband, along with telework, telepresence, telemedicine, and distance learning, has the potential to reshape cities again by allowing people to live and work away from the city core, even in the most pristine beach, mountain, or prairie locations. But they must have broadband access, and the incumbent carriers are not inclined to provide it. Municipalities could, if allowed by law, but over a dozen states prohibit that, thanks to telecom lobbyists.

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    • David Deans

      @Wayne, thank you for sharing your perspective on this topic.

      Regarding your points about broadband availability and alternatives to the telco/cable incumbent, I’m assuming you’re referring specifically to the current U.S. market environment.

      Perhaps one day all Americans will believe that they’re “entitled” to broadband — as most likely do regarding electricity. That being said, maybe broadband in America is more akin to public library availability than it is to electricity. Meaning, when it’s made available, some will perceive a compelling need and want to use this community asset while others aren’t so convinced.

      Access to the internet is often associated with communication, information and knowledge. I recall a statistic I read in 2002 that raised my awareness to why U.S. internet adoption might stagnate sooner than policymakers had anticipated — “58 percent of the U.S. adult population never reads another book after high school.”

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  3. Wayne, the incumbent carriers are not inclined to provide it because they cannot scale their business models across all demand segments cost effectively. With a horizontal orientation this scale is possible and marginal cost is a driver of pricing. Technological obsolecense is not only factored in, but becomes a competitive advantage.

    It’s unfortunate that we went from a semi-competitive state (albeit vertically integrated) to a remonopolized market. No one asked “did all the competitors fail because they were vertically integrated? Did the regulators assist the monopolies in abusive and discrimanatory behaviour?” It’s unfortunate that we’ve arrived at a state, 10 years after bandwidth pricing disconnected from Moore’s and Metcalfe’s laws, that we see so many public pronouncements and requests for municipal systems.

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  4. David Deans

    The impact of digital illiteracy will likely be similar to analogue illiteracy (i.e. my earlier public library reference) — see this story “Study Demonstrates Demand for Online Workers” http://bit.ly/KRzPTq

    Most developed nations with a significant segment of the population that’s under-educated (like the U.S.) for the demands of 21st Century jobs will need a dual strategy — 1) address the basic education needs/wants of the unqualified workers, 2) deliver gigabit broadband to the professionals that are already able to apply it effectively today.

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  5. As more services go digital, it makes sense for them to start using the same network rather than separate networks for phone, TV, energy management and security. That’s why I’ve been a longtime evangelist of public, open-access networks where service providers simply provide the electronics to connect. They could reach all customers in a market without the sunk costs of digging up streets and managing a physical plant, and they’d compete on a level playing field. Customers would have access to all services with true competition, so this should address Michael’s concern that bandwidth pricing has been disconnected from Moore’s and Metcalfe’s laws.

    For more info, see “BIG Broadband: Public Infrastructure or Private Monopolies.” It’s a whitepaper I wrote some 10 years ago that applies even more today. It’s available on my old & stale website at http://cazitech.com/big_broadband.htm.

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    • David Deans

      @Wayne, thanks for sharing those insights.

      But let’s revisit the key point of Howard’s editorial — there’s a borderless online free-market for skilled labor that’s emerged, and much of the current national policymaking in the developed world doesn’t appear to be in tune with this phenomenon.

      Does anyone else care to comment with their local observations, or a forward-looking view of how this trend may further develop and evolve within the Global Networked Economy?

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  6. Wayne, thank you for that. All of this monopoly vs public infrastructure debate presupposses that there can only be one, possibly two layer 1-2 infrastructure providers. I think that assumption needs to be thoroughly reconsidered when looking at how dynamic demand is, how important the networks and access to the services have become across 100% of our economy and lastly the fact that we have 4-5 different networks today that are vertically integrated.

    What if we had 3-5 horizontally scaled layer 1-2 service providers, which supported 10-20 control layer companies for all sorts of social, commercial, institutional and private ecosystems, supporting “n” number of application and marketing driven solutions integration providers? Oh yeah, this is called the internet! Well, sort of.

    Supporting this notion and respecting David (aka the moderator)’s wishes, please read this article from Peter Bernstein (bit.ly/LwVNOl) regarding the dismal state of Europe’s employment and lack of ICT skills. This is most definitely tied to the fact that Europe maintained quasi monopolies during the 1990s and 2000s and broadband was expensive, making the internet a luxury, albeit still common, good.

    Why can’t we simply accept that a competitive WAN, data/internet and wireless sectors led to America’s resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s? The only reason we have the lead still in wireless (iOS and Droid) is because we remonopolized the wireless sector last. AT&T and VZW are trying to stifle that sector now with their data caps and monopoly pricing.

    One last point regarding Howard’s story about broadband connectivity. It is remarkable what people will put up with and find acceptable when it comes to communications. I was speaking with someone today who brought up the issue of SLAs and QoS in the debate between ethernet and MPLS. I had to laugh and said, “would we ever have thought that we would put up with such shoddy wireless service for so much vital communications (it really is pathetic quality) and that we would be ok with grainy video images of people across the country?” So for all those people who hide behind expensive vertically integrated carrier models claiming SLAs and QoS as key issues I say, “look at how satisfied people are today because they can talk on cheap wireless voice and nearly free skype.” That said, I wonder how long people actually will put up with poor quality if the realized that doing away with monopolies meant better service at lower prices nearly everywhere.

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  7. The economic success of cities largely depends on physical infrastructure investments such as sea & airports, highways, and electricity. Universities represent another important infrastructure, because businesses locate where they can find skilled workers and gain a competitive advantage.

    In comes BIG Broadband, with its impact on telework, distance learning, telehealth, and more. Now employers can hire the very best knowledge workers no matter where they are. And skilled workers can find new employment opportunities without moving and disrupting the family. But towns without fast networks are at a distinct disadvantage, especially those whose primary industry has been offshored. Students who go off to college often never return.

    Several years ago I participated in an economic development conference in Louden, VA. They are a pristine suburb of Washington, DC, but the long commute times were a killer, and they addressed the problem with an investment in public fiber, partially because of the paper I mentioned above.

    There are implications of this story for US municipalities and for our National Broadband Strategy, which I still consider quite weak, compared to other nations. I expect everyone here knows the story of South Korea and how they came to lead the world in broadband adoption. Some say their success is due to very dense population centers, cut it’s more a result of setting an aggressive vision and objective and establishing the public policies to achieve them. They invested in (1) education, (2) research, and (3) broadband.

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  8. David Deans

    @Wayne,

    FYI, we first covered the leadership example of South Korea back in November of 2010 http://blogs.cisco.com/cle/how-leading-nations-reach-ict-supremacy/

    I’ve not visited that nation before — I’d like to go there. I have often wondered what it might be like to have access to symmetrical super-fast broadband (at a price that I could afford).

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    • Wayne. South Korea is highly centralized not just geographically, but economically and politically. Moreover, S. Korea is homogeneous. We have a problem here called states, as well as cultural diversity! There are many other things that factor in to this discussion that would go beyond the original thread. But it will be interesting to see what cultural shifts occur in Korea as a result of bringing so much capacity online so quickly. We will know in 5-10 years. I think our only path to broadband success will be a competitive approach.

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  9. South Korea have learned from President Kennedy that almost anything’s possible if you set it as an objective. They created their own “We choose to go to the moon” moment with broadband. At the other extreme, the US seems to have forgotten that lesson and what Alice in Wonderland taught us, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

    “What would it be like to have super-fast symmetrical broadband?” Some Stanford researchers asked me that several years ago and pressed me for answers beyond 100 Mbps, because their patent-pending technology could deliver gigabit speeds to homes over existing fiber infrastructure. It caused deep thought beyond conventional thinking and resulted in this slide deck: http://www.slideshare.net/waynecaswell/big-broadband-and-gigabittothehome-6726015

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  10. I appreciate the idea behind the article. I do take exception to a key point you make. It is this one:
    “The geographical advantages that used to support great cities – such as rivers or railroads – have faded. People are realizing that they can work anywhere.”

    Geographic advantages will continue to exist. We still need ports. We still need roads. We still need to reach the market to buy food and other perishables that do not lend themselves to parcel or other post delivery. These services still require people to work where the job is. Knowledge workers can work from anywhere. But electricians, plumbers, truck drivers, shipbuilders, farmers and the vast majority of workers will continue to be tied to a specific workplace.

    But, I am grateful that I enjoy the luxury of working from wherever I can find a connection to the Internet.

    I hope you enjoy your tour of the world while still on the job. That should be a wonderful experience.

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    • David Deans

      @W. Duke,

      Understood, point taken. Also, certain types of white-collar job requirements are more likely to benefit from a free-market global online talent pool, while others not so much. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

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    • I agree with Duke in the near-term. That said, HD video conferencing might be fairly disruptive to commercial real estate as people get so much value from looking at someone directly and reading their facial expressions and moods. It definitely does not replace the casual banter and collegiality that comes from working in the same location. Some of this is actually developing in virtual workplaces like linkedin and twitter. It will be interested to watch how the nature of work and colleagues continues to evolve and its impact on the physical environment. The other thing that is happening with communications and mobility is supply-chain and resource management. How goods and people move around are changing and becoming more efficient. How this impacts transportation and trading systems (cities and ports) remains to be seen.

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  11. LONG EXAMPLE: During a Texas legislative battle three sessions ago, as SBC tried to push a bill extending the state’s ban on municipal fiber to also ban muni-wireless, a guy from NE Texas gave some compelling testimony.

    After his town’s boot manufacturing business moved to Mexico, the longevity of the town was at risk. He used his CAD design skills to start a home-based business to support another industries, but he needed broadband access to grow. Since no provider offered it in his town, he’d drive 30 miles to a McDonalds to use their Wi-Fi connection and upload his very large graphics files.

    His decision to remain in his home or skip town depended on the outcome of SBC’s proposed bill. The bill was defeated by grass-roots lobbying that included me, and the guy stayed put. This is just one of dozens of examples that was presented to the legislature.

    A SIDE NOTE: The guy drove six hours to Austin to testify, but the committee that was hearing arguments gave priority to incumbent service providers rather than out-of-towners. When the meeting ran late, remaining testimony was postponed to the next day, but the guy’s buddy had to get back home to his work. So, the two guys drove back to NE Texas, and the one guy I spoke of drove back to Austin again so he could share his story.

    Later, we got wind that the House speaker had secretly scheduled a floor vote the next day, so we scrambled our volunteers to develop a strategy and messaging and canvassed the Capitol the next morning. Thanks to the efforts of about a dozen citizen activists, the bill was ultimately killed, and Texas municipalities can still install municipal Wi-Fi.

    The night before that key floor vote, SBC’s 150 paid lobbyists and the committee chairman were so confident that they partied at the top lobbyist’s house. BTW, he reportedly earned $1.5 million per year.

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    • Wayne, great example and thanks for the voluminous broadband report. Unfortunately this story was repeated 1000s of times over and the Bells killed competition over the past 15 years:

      1) The Telecom Act was a well intentioned farce. I said this in 1996 and have stood by it since.
      2) Special access was killed in 2002.
      3) Equal access was killed in 2004.
      4) All based on the same lies and deceit that Vail promulgated in 1913.

      By the way, there are 533 days left to the 100 year anniversary of the Kingsbury Commitment. Commitment…right! Haha. Spread the word.

      Lastly, let’s all agree that Steve Jobs resurrected equal access in 2007 and work together to take advantage of it to create sustainable competition.

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  12. I am struck with this statement “An ancillary benefit of broadband besides communication is education. A citizenry’s ability to gain a well-rounded education and practical skills provides liberation in and of itself, a freedom to learn and thrive without having to uproot oneself and one’s family.” It is indeed true, but we must also be reminded to be more responsible in using technology.

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