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.

2017 Technology Trends

Alexander_Crystal_SeerI usually take a look once a year at the technology trends that will be affecting the coming year. There have been so many other topics of interest lately that I didn’t quite get around to this by the end of last year. But here are the trends that I think will be the most noticeable and influential in 2017:

The Hackers are Winning. Possibly the biggest news all year will be continued security breaches that show that, for now, the hackers are winning. The traditional ways of securing data behind firewalls is clearly not effective and firms from the biggest with the most sophisticated security to the simplest small businesses are getting hacked – and sometimes the simplest methods of hacking (such as phishing for passwords) are still being effective.

These things run in cycles and there will be new solutions tried to stop hacking. The most interesting trend I see is to get away from storing data in huge data bases (which is what hackers are looking for) and instead distributing that data in such a way that there is nothing worth stealing even after a hacker gets inside the firewall.

We Will Start Talking to Our Devices. This has already begun, but this is the year when a lot of us will make the change and start routinely talking to our computer and smart devices. My home has started to embrace this and we have different devices using Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa. My daughter has made the full transition and now talks-to-text instead of screen typing, but us oldsters are catching up fast.

Machine Learning Breakthroughs will Accelerate. We saw some amazing breakthroughs with machine learning in 2016. A computer beat the world Go champion. Google translate can now accurately translate between a number of languages. Just this last week a computer was taught to play poker and was playing at championship level within a day. It’s now clear that computers can master complex tasks.

The numerous breakthroughs this year will come as a result of having the AI platforms at Google, IBM and others available for anybody to use. Companies will harness this capability to use AI to tackle hundreds of new complex tasks this year and the average person will begin to encounter AI platforms in their daily life.

Software Instead of Hardware. We have clearly entered another age of software. For several decades hardware was king and companies were constantly updating computers, routers, switches and other electronics to get faster processing speeds and more capability. The big players in the tech industry were companies like Cisco that made the boxes.

But now companies are using generic hardware in the cloud and are looking for new solutions through better software rather than through sheer computing power.

Finally a Start of Telepresence. We’ve had a few unsuccessful shots at telepresence in our past. It started a long time ago with the AT&T video phone. But then we tried using expensive video conference equipment and it was generally too expensive and cumbersome to be widely used. For a while there was a shot at using Skype for teleconferencing, but the quality of the connections often left a lot to be desired.

I think this year we will see some new commercial vendors offering a more affordable and easier to use teleconferencing platform that is in the cloud and that will be aimed at business users. I know I will be glad not to have to get on a plane for a short meeting somewhere.

IoT Technology Will Start Being in Everything. But for most of us, at least for now it won’t change our lives much. I’m really having a hard time thinking I want a smart refrigerator, stove, washing machine, mattress, or blender. But those are all coming, like it or not.

There will be More Press on Hype than on Reality. Even though there will be amazing new things happening, we will still see more press on technologies that are not here yet rather than those that are. So expect mountains of articles on 5G, self-driving cars and virtual reality. But you will see fewer articles on the real achievements, such as talking about how a company reduced paperwork 50% by using AI or how the average business person saved a few trips due to telepresence.

New Technologies and the Business Office

old robotI often write about new technologies that are just over the horizon.  Today I thought it would be interesting to peek ten years into the future and see how the many new technologies we are seeing today will appear in the average business office of a small ISP. Consider the following:

Intelligent Digital Assistants. Within ten years we have highly functional digital assistants to help us. These will be successors to Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. These assistants will become part of the normal work day. When an employee is trying to find a fact these assistants will be able to quickly retrieve the needed answer. This will be done using a plain English voice interface and employees will no longer need to through a CRM system or do a Google search to find what they need. When an employee wants a reminder of where the company last bought a certain supply or wants to know the payment history of a given customer – they will just ask, and the answer will pop up on their screen or be fed into an earbud or other listening device as appropriate.

Telepresence. It will start becoming common to have meetings by telepresence, meaning there will be fewer face-to-face meetings with vendors, suppliers or customers. Telepresence using augmented reality will allow for a near-real life conversation with a person still sitting at their own home or office.

Bot-to-Bot Communications. The way you interface with many of your customers will become fully automated. For instance, if a customer wants to know the outstanding balance on their account they will ask their own digital assistant to go find the answer. Their bot will interface with the carrier’s customer service bot and the two will work to provide the answer your customer is seeking. Since there is artificial intelligence on both sides of the transaction the customer will no longer be limited to only asking about the few facts you make available today through a customer service GUI interface.

Self-Driving Cars. At least some of your maintenance fleets will become self-driving. This will probably become mandatory as a way to control vehicle insurance costs. Self-driving vehicles will be safer and they will always take the most direct path between locations. By freeing up driving time you will also free up technicians to do other tasks like communicating with customers or preparing for the next customer site.

Drones. While you won’t use drones a lot, they are far cheaper than a truck roll when you need to deliver something locally. It will be faster and cheaper to use drones to send a piece of electronics to a field technician or to send a new modem to a customer.

3D Printing. Offices will begin to routinely print parts needed for the business. If you need a new bracket to mount a piece of electronics you will print one that will be an exact fit rather than have to order one. Eventually you will 3D print larger items like field pedestals and other gear – meaning you don’t have to keep an inventory of parts or wait for shipments.

Artificial Intelligence. Every office will begin to cede some tasks to artificial intelligence. This may start with small things like using an AI to cover late night customer service and trouble calls. But eventually offices will trust AIs to perform paperwork and other repetitive tasks. AIs will take care of things like scheduling the next day’s technician visits, preparing bank deposit slips, or notifying customers about things like outages or scheduled repairs. AIs will eventually cut down on the need for staff. You are always going to want to have a human touch, but you won’t need to use humans for paperwork and related tasks that can be done more cheaply and precisely by an AI.

Robots. It’s a stretch to foresee physical robots in a business office environment in any near-future setting. It’s more likely that you will use small robots to do things like inspect fiber optic cables in the field or to make large fiber splices. When the time comes when a robot can do everything a field technician can do, we will all be out of jobs!

What Does a Gigabit Get Us?

pro_MC220L-01This is the sort of blog I really like because it talks about the future. Last fall the Pew Research Center asked a number of industry experts what ubiquitous gigabit bandwidth would do for society. Since then there have been numerous articles written about the changes that might come with faster bandwidth. Interestingly, these are not distant Star Trek fantasies; industry experts are expecting these ideas to manifest in a decade or so. Following are some of the more interesting ideas that I’ve seen:

Enabling Hermits Everywhere. A large number of experts believe that one of the first and most practical aspects of gigabit bandwidth will be telepresence, which means the ability to meet with people holographically and feel like you are in the same room. This would largely eliminate business travel because people could meet together at any time as long as they are all connected with gigabit bandwidth.

This same technology also means you could sit for an evening with a remote family member, meet with a doctor, get a piano lesson, or do almost anything that involves meeting with somebody else without needing physical interaction. This will enable even the biggest hermits among us to interact from the safety of our living rooms. (But it will also change the way we dress when we work from home!)

I have read predictions that this is going to mean that we do away with emails, phone calls, and other methods of communications, but I don’t buy that. It’s human nature to not always want to communicate in real time with people and I think telepresence is going to make us very careful about who we let into our lives. I suspect we will become very selective about who we will share our presence with and that we won’t let salespeople and strangers into our telepresence.

Holodecks? Big bandwidth ought to bring about new forms of entertainment. If we can sit holograhically in a meeting we can also holograhically attend a concert, take a ride on a gondola in Venice, or sit on the beach in the Caribbean. It also means a huge leap forward in gaming where we can become characters within a game rather than controlling characters from without. And I am guessing that the sex industry will probably be one of the earliest to monetize these abilities.

The Ever-present Infosphere. Huge bandwidth coupled with the cloud and supercomputers means that we can have a computerized world with us anywhere there is bandwidth. This will eventually do away with computers, smartphones and other devices since the infosphere will always be there. We will have multiple screens and holographic projectors in the home and some future indiscrete wearable when away from home. We will each have a useful personal assistant that will help us navigate in a gigabit world.

The Internet of Things Becomes Useful. Rather than just having a smart thermometer and a door that we can unlock with our smartphones, we will be surrounded by devices that will tailor to our individual needs to create the environment we want. We will be constantly medically monitored and will be far healthier as a result.

Just-in-time Learning. With the infosphere always around us we will be able to access the facts we need when we need them. This will revolutionize education because we will have access to all of the ‘how-to’ manuals in the world and we will have a personal assistant to use them. This makes a lot of traditional education obsolete because everybody will be able to learn at their own pace. There might not be home-schooling, but rather personal assistant schooling. Obviously there will still need to be traditional types of training for specialties and physical skills. But the idea of needing to sit through months-long classes will become obsolete for most topics. This also will make education ubiquitous and a motivated person from anywhere on the planet and from any walk of life can learn whatever they want.

Always Monitored. Privacy will become a major issue when everything we do is being monitored. This can go one of two ways and we will either all adapt to living in a monitored society, or else there will be a outcry for a technological solution for guaranteeing our privacy. How this one issue is resolved will have a huge impact on everything else we do.

Something Unexpected. Many experts predict that ubiquitous bandwidth will probably not bring us only the things we expect, but rather things that we have not yet imagined. Who, just a decade ago, really understood the impact of smartphones, social media, and the other applications that are forefront in our lives today? It’s likely than many of the things listed above will happen, but that the most important future developments aren’t even on that list.

The Digital Divide Becomes Critical. Those without bandwidth are quickly going to be left out of the mainstream of the new society that is going to rely on gigabit tools for daily life. This will probably drive communities to find ways to get fiber at any cost, or else look at being left far behind. But we also might see some people drop out of the gigabit world and have segments of the population who refuse to partake in the bandwidth-driven future. One also has to wonder how we will cope when we lose the infosphere due to hurricanes or other acts that kill our connectivity for an extended period of time. Will we become too dependent upon the infosphere to function well without it?


What Does a Gigabit Get Us?

Alexander_Crystal_SeerPew Research did a survey of 1,464 industry experts and asked then what killer apps we can expect if the US is able to significantly increase customer bandwidth between now and 2025. About 86% of the experts thought that bandwidth would improve enough by then to provide a platform for supporting widespread new applications.

The question does not suppose that everybody will have a gigabit of download speed, although by then there will many homes and businesses with that much speed available. But one can also suppose that by then that there will be many people with download speeds of hundreds of megabits. The cable companies are on a path with DOCSIS 3.1 to be able to increase speeds significantly on their networks if they so choose. So the biggest chance for fast speeds for the masses is not having fiber built everywhere by 2025, but rather of having the cable companies stepping up over the next decade. Most experts are thinking that they will to some extent (and I agree).

There were a few applications that a number of the experts agreed would become prevalent if download speeds increase:

Telepresence. There was a feeling that telepresence will have come a long way over the next decade. We already see the beginning of this today. For example, Julian Assange from WikiLeaks recently appeared at a summit in Nantucket via hologram. That is the precursor for having routine meetings with people by hologram. This would not just be speakers at conferences (but it would make it easier to get more impressive speakers when they don’t have to travel). But it means having salesmen make calls by telepresence. It means having staff meeting and other business meetings by telepresence. This is going to have a huge impact on business and could represent huge cost savings by reducing travel and the wasted costs and hours due to travel.

But there is also going to be a huge market for residential telepresence. One of the most popular features today of an iPhone is Facetime that lets people easily see each other while they talk. And Skyping has become wildly popular. One can imagine that people will grab onto telepresence as soon as the associated hardware is affordable, as a way to spend time with family and friends.

The experts also think that telepresence will have a big impact on medicine and education. Telemedicine will have come a long way when if a patient can spend time in the ‘presence’ of a doctor. Telepresence also will be huge for shopping since you will be able to get 3D demos of products online. In fact, this might become the first most prominent use of the technology.

Virtual Reality. Somewhat related to telepresence will be greatly improved virtual reality. We have the start of this today with Oculus Rift, but over a decade, with more bandwidth and faster processors we can have improved virtual reality experiences that can be used for gaming or for blending the fantasy world with the real one. There was also news last week that Microsoft demonstrated a 3D hologram gaming platform they are calling GameAlive that brings something akin to a holodeck experience into your living room. Over a decade virtual reality is likely to move beyond the need for a special helmet and will instead move into our homes and businesses.

Imagine being in a gym room and playing a game of tennis or some other sport with a friend who is elsewhere or against an imaginary opponent. Imagine taking virtual tours of foreign tourist destinations or even of visiting imaginary places like other planets or fantasy worlds. It is likely that gaming and virtual reality will become so good that they will become nearly irresistible. So I guess if computers take all of our jobs at least we’ll have something fun to do.

Internet of Things. Within a decade the IoT will become a major factor in our daily lives and the interaction between people and machines will become more routine. We are already starting to see the beginning of this in that we spend a lot of our time connected to the web. But as we become more entwined with technology it means a big change in our daily lives. For example, experts all expect personal assistants like Siri to improve to the point where they become a constant part of our lives.

Just last week we saw IBM roll out their Watson supercomputer platform for the use in daily apps. That processing speed along with better conversational skills is quickly going to move the web and computer apps deeper into our lives. Many of the experts refer to this as a future of being ‘always-on”, where computers become such a routine part of life that we always are connected. Certainly wearables and other devices will make it easier to always have the web and your personal assistant with you.

Aside from the many benefits of the IoT which I won’t discuss here, the fact that computers will become omnipresent is perhaps the most important prediction about our future.

Not everything predicted by the experts was positive and tomorrow I am going to look at a few of those issues.