The New York Times recently published a special section on Networking. As sometimes happens, budget problems caused them to cut material, including my report on the coming of super high-speed Internet service to the US. Here is that story.
Now Arriving - Faster Internet Connections
THE halcyon days of the late 1990’s spawned visions of telecommunications companies spinning out fiber-optic cables like cotton candy — opening the way for instantaneous downloads, high-definition television and videophones in every home.
Instead, Americans found themselves simply praying that the cable TV provider would add Internet service to their neighborhood, or that they lived close enough to a telephone company’s central office (about three-and-a-half miles) to get a digital subscriber line. The lucky ones with cable or D.S.L. have been happy to get a primitive broadband link to the Internet — with typical data rates from about 0.5 megabits a second to 3 megabits a second — allowing Web pages packed with graphics (and advertising) to load easily, and making music downloads and Internet phone calls possible.
But now, after the dot-com bubble has gone, super-fast Internet access is finally arriving — whether through new faster connections into homes or new network technologies that make those connections perform even better. Verizon, for example, has already brought fiber-optic cables to the front yards of one million homes and businesses, and it plans to reach three million by the end of the year. Verizon is offering data rates of up to 30 megabits per second on the new lines — fast enough to download about 20 six-megapixel photos in a half minute. It will also provide telephone and television service over those fiber lines. SBC Communications, another telecom, is undertaking a more modest, but more widespread fiber-optic expansion that aims to bring connections of 20 to 25 megabits a second to 18 million customers by early 2008.
Beyond the spread of fiber-optic cable, another factor in the speedup has been the realization by telecom companies that they can mimic how the Internet works to make their own internal networks simpler and more efficient. Using the technology known as Internet protocol, data is broken into small chunks that can travel via different routes — favoring the most efficient at the moment — to reach the same destination, where they are reassembled.
In phone service today, most calls are still circuit-switched: each call gets an exclusive connection for the length of the conversation. But telecom companies are quickly moving to packet-switching, in which multiple calls are converted into parcels of data that travel together over the same line. Verizon, for example, estimates that this move to voice over IP makes its system about twice as efficient.
Telecom companies can likewise use IP to combine phone calls and Internet traffic. And several companies, from the regional giant SBC to smaller companies like SureWest in California and Utopia in Utah, are challenging the cable and satellite TV providers by also using IP to provide TV service. (Verizon’s strategy is slightly different. Instead of converting television to IP, it will transmit standard digital and analog television signals through its fiber-optic cables.)
But to provide TV using IP technology is demanding: depending on compression technologies, a single high-definition program runs at about 3 to 15 megabits a second — meeting or exceeding the total capacity that most cable or DSL Internet connections typically provide. And to compete with cable and satellite, service providers must be able to stream several shows at once to feed multiple TVs in each home. That demand takes home fiber-optic connections from being a luxury to a necessity.
Whether telecoms succeed as television providers, millions of consumers will get the windfall of a high-speed network that will vastly improve Internet service. They may also benefit from another behind-the-scenes technology called Multi-protocol Label Switching, a mouthful that essentially means “traffic control.”
One drawback of IP technology is the possibility of deteriorating quality. For example, mixing data from voice calls and e-mail messages may lead to delays that cause the audio to break up. But the new traffic control systems can recognize voice or video packets, for example, and fast track them so that conversations or movies stream smoothly. Less time-sensitive packets, like those for e-mail, can be made to wait a split second while the others pass.
Currently, individual telecom companies are putting out the new system to streamline data moving within their networks, but not necessarily between them. The next step, in the works, is for the telecoms to agree on a common method of using the technology, so that a packet given a certain priority label in AT&T’s network, for example, retains the same priority when it passes to, say, Verizon. A standard could emerge within two years. If and when companies choose to follow it, that would enable a new fast-track system for moving data across the Internet, thus allowing important innovations to take hold.
The biggest gain for most people could be a redefinition of television. Independent video producers are already gaining a following on the Internet through video blogs and download sites like iFilm.com. Several new sites and services are emerging, including Akimbo, Brightcove and Dave.tv.
The combination of fiber optics and new data sorting techniques may eventually provide enough speed and reliability to dispense with the click-and-wait download process and stream high-quality (even high-definition) video instantaneously — making Internet television similar in quality and experience to current cable and satellite offerings. As news blogs continue to challenge “mainstream media,” Internet video may challenge Hollywood, offering many more styles and choices of programs than cable or satellite TV can.