Where is the standard ‘socket’ for broadband?

When you plug into a broadband socket, what you are accessing is a distributed computing service that supplies information exchange. What is the service description and interface definition? For inspiration, we can look at the UK power plug.

One of the great unsung fit-for-purpose innovations in British society is the BS1363 13 ampere power plug and socket. This is superior to other plugs by virtue of its solid construction and safe design.

Firstly, the three square prongs make for excellent electrical contact. It is practically impossible to wobble the plug to cause sparks or intermittent connectivity. The ‘success mode’ of clean, continuous power is fully covered off. But that’s not all.

When the earth prong goes into the socket, it opens up shutters than reveal the live power. Small children can’t put sticky fingers in the socket, to the occasional regret of a frustrated parent of a screaming toddler. Yanking on the cord also does not easily apply undue force to the electrical components causing a dangerous fracture. Another great thing about a British plug is the fuse. If there is too much demand, then it cuts out, rather than going on fire. So as a design, the ‘failure modes’ are also well covered off.

When you stand in the store to buy an electrical appliance, it is easy to tell what the rated demand is in terms of volts and amps. The capability of the supply is also clear, both for the whole dwelling, as well as in-building distribution like multi-socket power strips. You know your cooker needs a special supply, and that you can’t power your tumble dryer off an AA battery soldered onto a socket.

In summary, a fit-for-purpose interface between supply and demand does three things: it enables ‘success’ for specific uses; it sufficiently limits ‘failure’ for those uses; and it clearly communicates what uses it is suitable for to the buyer.

What is missing in broadband is the conceptual equivalent of the standardised plug and socket. The interface between demand and supply is defined at an electrical level, but the overall service of information exchange is (mostly) undefined. As a result we are left with two less than satisfactory approaches to service delivery.

One technical approach is how we use ‘over the top’ applications like iPlayer today. It is as if we leave an unshielded live information ‘virtual cable’ exposed directly to end users. ‘Success modes’ are enabled, since many applications work some of the time, but the constraint on their ‘failure modes’ is weak.

In this model, users are not sufficiently ‘insulated’ from one another. Performance ‘brown outs’ from overload are common, as our example with video sign language demonstrates. As your children come home from school and go online, the performance of your important work application tangibly plummets.

Alternatively, we have vertically integrated network services, more like how traditional landline phone calls or cable TV work. The information ‘virtual cable’ from the appliance is ‘hard-wired’ into the wall, and it can’t be switched over.

Whilst performance is predictable, and the service is usually fit-for-purpose, it is a highly inflexible approach. The price of constraining the ‘failure mode’ is a severe limit on the number of ‘success modes’. Vertical integration reduces consumer choice, with a high cost for any services delivered.

The need to ‘insulate’ the application from other uses may even result in a complete parallel infrastructure, as we have created in the UK for smart meters, at a cost of billions of pounds.

The resources spent on special-purpose smart meter connectivity could have delivered an enormous improvement in the general-purpose infrastructure useful for transport, healthcare and emergency services. We certainly can’t afford to build duplicate infrastructures for every industry and application whose needs diverge even slightly from basic Internet access.

To break free from this situation the policy community needs to engage with three key questions:

  • What is the service that broadband delivers and what are its supply characteristics?
  • How should those characteristics be quantified for both wholesale/B2B and consumer retail consumption?
  • What should the “standard interface” be at the network termination point, so devices can ascertain the supply capability and what demand it can safely satisfy?

For the latest fresh thinking on telecommunications, please sign up for the free Geddes newsletter.