Yesterday I briefly discussed a few of the major predictions that have come out of a Pew Research survey of industry experts that ask what we’ll be seeing from broadband applications by 2025. They predicted such things as a major use of telepresence, greatly enhanced virtual reality and closer daily tie between us and our computers. Today I want to talk in more detail about one of the negative predictions where many of the experts predicted that we will see a new digital divide that will be more extreme than the current one.
The digital divide today is between people who have broadband and those that don’t. Those without broadband fall into a few categories – those that live in rural areas where broadband is not available, those who are too poor to afford broadband and those that don’t want it. I’ve talked about this before, but these experts are saying that the future digital divide will be more extreme because it will separate those who can participate in an all-digital world and those who cannot.
The future digital divide will matter because there are going to be essential services that require big bandwidth. Businesses without enough bandwidth will not be able to take part in telepresence, and this is going to cut them off from much of the world. Both their suppliers and customers are going to expect them to be able to communicate virtually. Homes are going to need big bandwidth for education, medical care and even shopping. Anybody without big bandwidth is going to be left out of the mainstream and will have to accept something less.
Those that have access to the bandwidth and the kinds of applications that are predicted for a decade from now will have a major advantage over those who do not have good enough broadband. This means people with big broadband will get the jobs, enjoy better health, be able to live in their homes to an older age and be better educated than those that don’t have big broadband. The gap today is not nearly this extreme, but with the future that the experts all foresee, broadband becomes a necessity and not something that is nice to have.
Big bandwidth services are going to require a landline broadband connection, be that fiber or an upgraded cable network. Wireless is going to have its place to keep you connected to the basic services while on the move, but telepresence, virtual reality and most IoT services are going to be landline-based.
It is almost certain that a lot more people will fall on the wrong side of the digital divide than today. Today there are tens of millions of households and businesses for which the broadband they have today will become totally inadequate in the future. Many of the technologies we use today that deliver okay bandwidth – DSL networks, older generation cable networks and WISP wireless networks – are not capable of delivering the kind of bandwidth that will be needed in the future. These technologies today can provide bandwidth speeds that most people find acceptable. But when we start using applications that are going to require speeds of a hundred megabits or maybe many hundreds of megabits, these technologies are all going to be inadequate.
The only two technologies that can deliver the kind of bandwidth needed in the future are fiber and updated cable networks. We all know that fiber is capable of incredible speeds and normally requires an upgrade in lasers and electronics to go faster. But there are upgrade paths for cable networks that ought to be able to provide gigabit speeds. The problem is that the cable network upgrades are complicated and costly. In many cases it’s not just electronics that needs to be changed for a cable network to go faster. It can mean building a lot more fiber into the cable network and sometimes even having to replace much of the coaxial cable. It means changing the cable headend, the settop boxes and the cable modems. It means almost a whole new network to get to gigabit speeds. But it can be done.
One has to realistically ask how many communities are going to get very fast, yet still affordable broadband. Certainly some of the major cities are getting gigabit fiber from Google and a handful of other providers. But even in those communities it looks like fiber isn’t going everywhere. Fiber is being put into neighborhoods willing to pay for the advanced services but it’s largely bypassing poorer neighborhoods and apartment buildings. In those same communities the cable companies are responding to fiber competition by upgrading speeds.
But what about all of the places that don’t get fiber over the next decade? Will the cable companies make the needed investments in smaller markets to get faster speeds? Much of small-town America that has broadband speeds today between 3 Mbps – 15 Mbps due to older technology and its not hard to bet that they are not going to upgraded.
One of the new industry buzzwords is that fiber is a utility, and is something that every community needs to be able to thrive. While this may be somewhat true today, within a decade fast data speeds will be essential for businesses to operate and for homes to partake in the services that come only with speed. The demands for faster broadband will become louder as more and more communities that have okay broadband today find that same broadband to be totally inadequate tomorrow.