A new narrative for broadband

Over the past few months, I’ve had a number of conversations that have crystallised for me why broadband truly matters, and why I am in this business. I would like to share those thoughts with you.

There is a famous quote from management guru Peter Drucker: “The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.” What he meant is that businesses exist because customers experience value in using their product or service. Profit is merely a helpful metric by which we evaluate whether their value creation exceeds their input resource use. Similarly, technology is purely subservient to the goal of value creation for users, not an end in itself.

With broadband, there remains a lot of value still to be created and captured. Today, the mainstay service of broadband is Internet access. This has brought us many wonders, as well as quite a lot of weirdness. Whilst the cat videos are fun (#6 is my favourite), I believe that it’s time for broadband to “grow up”. There are deeper transformation needs of society that today’s broadband services aren’t yet addressing.

As an example of what’s missing, I’d like you to consider my aunt. She is 76, lives alone, and is quite deaf. Being deaf is not merely an inconvenient impairment. It also poses wider health risks due to the social isolation it often imposes. Naturally, family members want to keep in touch, despite such impediments to communication.

Yet the experience of calling my aunt on the telephone is a trying one. She may not hear her phone ring, since she may have the radio on, always at a high volume. If she does answer, then the experience is a frustrating one for all concerned.

I recently heard of a start-up making a new kind of connected digital hearing aid. The audio from calls is pre-processed in the cloud, personalised to that user’s hearing needs, and delivered to the user over broadband and then wireless. There is no “analogue gap” like today between the phone handset and a microphone in the hearing aid. It is end-to-end digital, and this has many advantages. For instance, incoming calls could easily mute the background radio from being amplified.

The drawback? It doesn’t work reliably enough on today’s broadband, because it needs strongly assured timing. Given the vagaries of the local wireless part, your budget for additional loss and delay in the commodity backhaul is constrained.

So nobody is going to buy an expensive device which depends on a delivery service that isn’t fit-for-purpose, or may capriciously cease to function after purchase. This deficit hurts not only my aunt, but also the whole economy. Hearing aids are a booming industry as the population ages. My turn and your turn are likely to come, too! (Mine especially – I have moderate tinnitus which has slowly worsened over the years…)

It isn’t just my aunt who is under-served by today’s broadband offer. Staying with deaf people, the current broadband Internet product is unsatisfactory because it fails to deliver the steady frame-rate needed for sign language. What may look like a clever adaptive video codec to a hearing person looks like an act of communications sabotage to a deaf person.

It’s not just deaf people who need more dependable services. Teleworkers, home education, e-healthcare, automotive services and smart grids all have different performance, dependability and cost needs that often fall outside today’s broadband service capability.

So how can we deliver cheap psychotherapy to those with mental health struggles, for whom the cost and time of travel may be unaffordable, assuming they even have the mobility needed? How can the elderly and lonely be befriended, safe from the knowledge that there will be no cruel failures of a video service just because the kids have all come home from school and turned their gaming devices on?

How do we go about realising the full and true economic and social potential of broadband?

One path is clearly the wrong one. My auntie – and millions like her – lives on a basic state pension. She can barely afford broadband in its current form. (Indeed, she doesn’t yet subscribe, so don’t suggest sending her an email instead of phoning.) The answer most definitely isn’t to lay an extra line to every home in the land just for this one service. Indeed, this cloud hearing aid service can technically be delivered over an existing basic 512k ADSL line. Adding more single-purpose super-fast fibre infrastructure just makes the service unaffordable, whilst still failing to deliver the required strong timing assurance.

That means we must look beyond today’s basic Internet access product to get the full social and economic dividends of broadband. It simply doesn’t deliver the cost and quality needs of many critical applications. It isn’t (yet) the general-purpose data network we seek. Broadband needs to be seen as a way of delivering a diversity of public and private services, with many different technical and commercial needs.

This in turn suggests that we need to re-visit some basic assumptions:
That the aim of regulation is to stimulate retail competition, rather than the wholesale offers that might allow people to buy and use that hearing aid regardless of which ISP they are on.
That the technologies and delivery models we use to deliver broadband Internet access are the same ones that support all broadband services.
That the back-office systems designed for simple ‘triple play’ offers are the ones needed to cope with the much richer range of business models that this multi-service world demand.
These are especially true if broadband is to become affordable to those on extremely low incomes outside of rich Westernised markets. These have traditionally relied on novel ways of dividing and re-packaging goods and services to meet their market needs. It’s one thing to deliver the digital cloud hearing aid to my auntie; quite another to scale that to hundreds of millions of people on a small fraction of even her income.

My hypothesis is that there is a new narrative to be created around broadband. This agenda is about making a huge difference to peoples’ lives, especially those who struggle or suffer. That means achieving levels of performance and cost that are significantly beyond today’s broadband offer.

The threat to that future narrative is to assume we have already reached some kind of pinnacle of networking achievement. This may encourage us to attempt to freeze development, fearing that change will result in loss of what we have. Instead, we should embrace further and radical improvement. To channel Drucker, we should judge progress only by the user value we create, not by the business models or technologies we use to achieve it.

My personal hope is advance this new narrative by the development and dissemination of network performance science. In return, I’d like to get a cheap and decent cloud-based digital hearing aid when I need one!

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