The Next Big Broadband Application

Ever since Google Fiber and a few municipalities began building gigabit fiber networks people have been asking how we are going to use all of that extra broadband capability. I remember a few years ago there were several industry contests and challenges to try to find the gigabit killer app.

But nobody has found one yet and probably won’t for a while. After all, a gigabit connection is 40 times faster than the FCC’s current definition of broadband. I don’t think Google Fiber or anybody thought that our broadband needs would grow fast enough to quickly fill such a big data pipe. But year after year we all keep using more data, and since the household need for broadband keeps doubling every three years it won’t take too many doublings for some homes to start filling up larger data connections.

But there is one interesting broadband application that might be the next big bandwidth hog. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, was recently on Good Morning America and he said that he thinks that augmented reality is going to be a far more significant application in the future than virtual reality and that once perfected that it’s going to be something everybody is going to want.

By now many of you have tried virtual reality. You don a helmet of some kind and are then transported into some imaginary world. The images are in surround-3D and the phenomenon is amazing. And this is largely a gaming application and a solitary one at that.

But augmented reality brings virtual images out into the real world. Movie directors have grasped the idea and one can hardly watch a futuristic show or movie without seeing a board room full of virtual people who are attending a meeting from other locations.

And that is the big promise of virtual reality. It will allow telepresence – the ability for people to sit in their home or office and meet and talk with others as if they are in the same room. This application is of great interest to me because I often travel to hold a few hour meetings and the idea of doing that from my house would add huge efficiency to my business life. Augmented reality could spell the end of the harried business traveler.

But the technology has far more promise than that. With augmented reality people can share any other images. You can share a sales presentation or share videos from your latest vacation with grandma. This ability to share images between people could drastically change education, and some predict that over a few decades that augmented reality would begin to obsolete the need for classrooms full of in-person students. This technology would fully enable telemedicine. Augmented reality will enhance aging in the home since shut-ins could still have a full social life.

And of course, the application that intrigues everybody is using augmented reality for entertainment. Taken to the extreme, augmented reality is the Star Trek holodeck. There are already first-generation units that can create a virtual landscape in your living room. It might take a while until the technology gets as crystal clear and convincing as the TV holodeck, but even having some percentage of that capability opens up huge possibilities for gaming and entertainment.

As the quality of augmented reality improves, the technology is going to require big bandwidth connections with a low latency. Rather than just transmitting a 2D video file, augmented reality will be transmitting 3D images in real time. Homes and offices that want to use the technology are going to want broadband connections far faster than the current 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband. Augmented reality might also be the first technology that really pushes the demand for faster upload speeds since they are as necessary as download speeds in enabling a 2-way augmented reality connection.

This is not a distant future technology and a number of companies are working on devices that will bring the first-generation of the technology into homes in the next few years. And if we’ve learned anything about technology, once a popular technology is shown to work, demand in the marketplace there will be numerous companies vying to improve the technology.

If augmented reality was here today the biggest hurdle to using it would be the broadband connections most of us have today. I am certainly luckier than people in rural areas and I have a 60/5 Mbps connection with a cable modem from Charter. But the connection has a lot of jitter and the latency swings wildly. My upload stream is not going to be fast enough to support 2-way augmented reality.

The economic benefits from augmented reality are gigantic. The ability for business people to easily meet virtually would add significant efficiency to the economy. The technology will spawn a huge demand for content. And the demand to use the technology might be the spur that will push ISPs to build faster networks.

Google Looking at Wireless Drops

Wi-FiIn an interview with Re/code Craig Barrett, the CEO of Access for Alphabet said that Google is looking at wireless last mile technologies. Google is not the only one looking at this. The founder of Aereo has announced a new wireless initiative to launch this summer in Boston under the brand name of Starry. And Facebook says it is also investigating the technology.

The concept is not new. I remember visiting an engineer in Leesburg, Virginia back in the 90s who had developed a wireless local loop technology. He had working prototypes that could beam a big data pipe for the time (I’m fuzzily remembering a hundred Mbps back when DSL was still delivering 1 Mbps). His technology was premature in that there wasn’t any good technology at the time for bringing fast broadband to the curb.

As usual there will be those that jump all over this news and declare that we no longer need to build fiber. But even should one of these companies develop and perfect the best imaginable wireless technology there is still going to have to be a lot of fiber built. All of these new attempts to develop wireless last mile technologies share a few common traits that are dictated by the nature of wireless spectrum.

First, to get good the kind of big bandwidth that Google wants to deliver, the transmitter and the customer have to be fairly close together. Starry is talking about a quarter mile deliver distance. One characteristic of any wireless signal is that the signal weakens with distance. And the higher the frequency of the spectrum used, the faster the signal deteriorates.

Second, unless there is some amazing breakthrough, a given transmitter will have a fixed and limited number of possible paths that be established to customers. This characteristic makes it very difficult to connect to a lot of customers in a densely populated area and is one of the reasons that wireless today is more normally used for less densely populated places.

Third, the connection for this kind of point-to-multipoint network must be line of sight. In an urban environment every building creates a radio ‘shadow’ and block access to customers sitting behind that building. This can be overcome to a small degree with technologies that bounce the signal from one customer to another – but such retransmission of a signal cuts the both the strength of the signals and the associated bandwidth.

However, Google has already recognized that there are a lot of people unwilling or unable to buy a gigabit of bandwidth from them on fiber. In Atlanta the company is not just selling a gigabit connection and is hitting the street with a 100 Mbps connection for $50. A good wireless system that had access to the right kind of spectrum could satisfy that kind of bandwidth to a fairly reasonable number of customers around a given transmitter. But it would be technically challenging to try to do the same with gigabit bandwidth unless each transmitter served fewer customers (and had to be even closer to the customer). A gigabit wireless network would start looking a lot like the one I saw year ago in Virginia where there was a transmitter for just a few nearby customers – essentially fiber to the curb with gigabit wireless local loops.

But if Starry can do what they are shooting for – the delivery of a few hundred Mbps of bandwidth at an affordable price will be very welcome today and would provide real competition to the cable companies that have monopolies in most urban neighborhoods. But, and here is where many might disagree with me, the time is going to come in a decade or two where 200 Mbps of bandwidth is going to become just as obsolete as first generation DSL has become in the twenty years since it was developed.

Over the next twenty years we can expect the full development of virtual and augmented reality so that real telepresence is available – holographic images of people and places brought to the home. This kind of technology will require the kind of bandwidth that only fiber can deliver. I think we’ll start seeing this just a few years from now. I can already imagine a group of teenagers gathering at one home, each with their own headset to play virtual reality games with people somewhere else. That application will very easily require a gigabit pipe just a few years from now.

I welcome the idea of the wireless last mile if it serves to break the cable monopoly and bring some real price competition into broadband. It’s a lot less appealing if the wireless companies decide instead to charge the same high prices as the incumbents. It sounds like the connections that Starry is shooting for are going to fast by today’s standards, but I’m betting that within a few decades that the technology will fall to the wayside – like every technology that doesn’t bring a fast wire to the home.

Augmented vs. Virtual Reality

Escher-6We are about to see the introduction of the new generation of virtual reality machines on the market. Not far behind them will probably be a number of augmented reality devices. These devices are something that network operators should keep an eye on, because they are the next generation of devices that are going to be asking for significant bandwidth.

The term ‘augmented reality’ has been around since the early 1990s and is used to describe any technology that overlays a digital interface over the physical world. Until now, augmented reality has involved projecting opaque holograms to blend into what people see in the real world. Virtual reality takes a very different approach and immerses a person in a fully digital world by projecting stereoscopic 3D images onto a screen in front of your eyes.

A number of virtual reality headsets are going to hit the market late this year into next year:

  • HTC Vive is hoping to hit the market by Christmas of this year. This is being developed in conjunction with Valve. This device will be a VR headset that will incorporate some augmented reality, which will allow a user to move and interact with virtual objects.
  • Oculus Rift, owned by Facebook, is perhaps the most anticipated release and is expected to hit the market sometime in 2016.
  • Sony is planning on releasing Project Morpheus in 1Q 2016. This device will be the first VR device integrated into an existing game console.
  • Samsung will be releasing its Gear VR sometime in 2016. This device is unique in that it’s powered by the Samsung Galaxy smartphone.
  • Raser will be releasing a VR headset based upon open source software that they hope will allow for more content delivery. Dates for market delivery are still not known.

All of these first generation virtual reality devices are for gaming and, at least in the first few generations, that will be the primary use for these devices. Like with any new technology, price is going to be an issue for the first generation devices, but one has to imagine that within a few years these devices might be as common as, or even displace, traditional game consoles. The idea of being totally immersed in a game is going to be very attractive.

There are two big players in the augmented reality market—Microsoft’s HoloLens and the Google-backed Magic Leap. These devices don’t have a defined target release date yet. But the promise for augmented reality is huge. These devices are being touted as perhaps the successor to the smartphone and as such have a huge market potential. This list of potential applications for an augmented reality device is mind boggling large, which must be what attracted Google to buy into Magic Leap.

The MagicLeap works by beaming images directly into a user’s retinas and the strength and intensity of the beam can create the illusion of 3D. But as with Google Glass, a user is also going to be able to see the real world behind the image. This opens up a huge array of possibilities that range from gaming, where the device takes over a large share of the visual space, to the same sorts of communicative and informative functions done by Google Glass.

The big hurdles for augmented reality are how to power the device as well as overcoming the social stigma around wearing a computer in public—who can forget the social stigma that instantly accrued to glassholes, those who wore Google Glass into bars and other public places? As a device it must be small, low power, inconspicuous to use, and still deliver an amazing visual experience to users. It’s probably going to take a while to work out those issues.

The two kinds of devices will compete with each other to some extent on the fringes of the gaming community, and perhaps in areas like providing virtual tours of other places. But for the most part the functions they perform and the markets they chase will be very different.