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Howard Baldwin - PhotographBy Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist

Those of us who cover broadband frequently bemoan its two steps forward, one step back progress, and the idealists among us yearn for a “Sputnik” moment that will galvanize regulators and carriers alike to leap forward into the future. Will broadband have such a moment, and if so, what will it look like?

Sputnik, of course, was the satellite the Soviet Union launched into orbit in early October of 1957. According to NASA, it was about the size of a beach ball and travelled at five miles per second 359 miles above the surface of the earth. It was a technological marvel that proved to be quite embarrassing to the United States, which at the time thought it was the leader of technological marvels.

Sputnik’s launch inspired much hand-wringing about math and science education in the United States, not to mention triggering the maniacal drive that put men on the moon just twelve years later.

Other Sputnik moments, notes John Horrigan, vice-president and director at the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, triggered the creation of the Sematech semiconductor consortium (to combat what was perceived as Japanese superiority in electronics) and the creation of innumerable intelligence capabilities in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

In these days when the United States and Europe rank lower than Scandinavia and South Korea on broadband penetration, I wonder whether broadband needs a similar awakening – an event that would trigger a second maniacal drive to connect citizens.

The Face of Change

I’m not sure what that moment would look like. Would it entail a carrier making a big investment in broadband, or a government doing so? As an idealist, I was hoping that Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN), encompassing both the country’s urban and rural populations, would make the world sit up and take notice, but it’s mired in problems and politics.

As it turns out, many others who follow broadband don’t know what it would look like either. “There won’t be a single ‘eureka!’ moment,” said Kamalini Ganguly, Ovum’s senior analyst for industry communications and broadband.

sputnik-moment

Nor are they optimistic that suddenly some entity will lay the foundation for something that will be looked upon as the logical template for broadband deployment that we’ve all been missing. “Every country has different set of issues,” says Ganguly. “In Europe, it’s regulation. In Australia, it’s politics. In the United States, it’s politics, cost, and geography. In Africa, the focus is on wireless. The more I look at it, the more diversity I see in deployments because of technologies and topologies.”

The only country that’s seen massive broadband infrastructure deployment over the last three years, she notes, is China, but that’s due to government funding through the incumbent carriers, which is unlikely to happen elsewhere in the world. “That’s not a repeatable scenario,” Ganguly notes.

Reset Expectations

If anything, analysts suggest, people like me have to ratchet back their expectations. Tim Johnson is a consultant analyst for research firm Point Topic, which focuses on broadband and IPTV deployments.

He not only remembers Sputnik as a teenager, but as a reporter for the London Sunday Times, he was in the Houston press room following the recovery of the Apollo 13 mission. “Having witnessed moments like that, I’ve learned that [their impact] doesn’t always follow the kind of straightforward, linear trajectory that people expect.”

In fact, Johnson and Ganguly both worry that we’re focusing too much on next-generation speed – 100 megabits per second – when we should be focusing on current-generation connectivity. If we’re talking about the benefits of connectivity, he says, such as digital literacy, then the goal should be getting connectivity to homes that don’t have it. Johnson says, “If the Internet is the new literacy, then having 30% of the population illiterate is not acceptable.”

He puts forth an even better analogy for his argument: supersonic transport versus jumbo jets. “The Concorde was a huge waste of money, while the Boeing 747 is the workhorse of the aviation world.” Emphasizing speed over connectivity is problematic, he argues.

What Will it Look Like?

Horrigan believes that a Sputnik moment may not even be something we can point to, citing broadband’s legendary “chicken-and-egg” conundrum: there won’t be demand for broadband without key applications, and there won’t be key applications without broadband. “There won’t be a ‘killer app’ for broadband,” he suggests, “but there will be enough incremental innovation in devices at the edge of the network to drive bandwidth usage.”

He suspects the so-called “internet of things,” with appliances, sensors, and machines increasingly having IP addresses, may eventually create a “tipping point” where broadband becomes necessary. “Many of these new innovations could have a government delivery component” – think smart meters for municipal utilities or other government services – “and that may make government invest.”

If there is going to be a Sputnik moment, and it’s a big if, Johnson also believes that it will come from government interest, such as a country that boosts its citizens’ connectivity up into the 90% bracket.

“Once they got up to that high a percentage, they start moving to a different kind of world. They could potentially leap ahead in terms of cost-effectiveness of government and providing for the care of their citizens and their education. They could start doing things differently on a national basis.”

That’s the kind of inspiration the idealists among us are hoping for. But it still seems a long, long way off. What do you think – is the broadband world too fragmented, or do you anticipate a Sputnik moment?

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