December 9, 2011 By Robert Bell
I have been to broadband conferences on three continents in the past year, and all the talk is about fiber-to-the-home (FTTH). The message, reduced to its essentials, is this: if broadband is to be deployed, then optical fiber is the only answer. Deploying anything else is a waste of time and resource, because only fiber has a hope of supporting the limitless demand that will arise as broadband becomes the pipe through which all communications flow.
This is a very interesting point of view, because nobody has the faintest idea what users will do to generate that limitless demand for bandwidth. In the American city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the municipal utility has run FTTH delivering 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) to 170,000 homes and businesses. That is 1 billion bits per second or nearly 170 times faster than the US average of about 6 megabits per second (Mbps). Chattanooga is now branding itself as “Gig City,” and has tried for the past year to organize a conference on Gig applications. But my friends there report that they ran into a bit of a roadblock. They could not find a single soul to come and speak on the topic, because such applications don’t exist.
One of the conferences I attended featured a segment in which university students presented their blue-sky ideas on what could be done with really fast Internet. Being students, a lot of the ideas centered around waiting until the last minute and still getting their homework assignments in on time. So it was about online document sharing and multi-party videoconferencing. But fantasy football, online medical records and distance education all came in for discussion. The trouble is that you can do all of these on a reliable 5-10 Mbps connection. Their blue sky just wasn’t very blue, and the ceiling was lower than on a foggy day at the shore.
Not having any idea what users will do with the bandwidth is not a problem – unless it is your money being invested in the network. Then it can be a very big problem indeed. We are in a new fiber construction boom right now because the private sector has found one high-speed application that they know makes money: television. By bundling TV, Internet at 20 Mbps and voice, they can deliver good service, fill a 50 Mbps pipe reasonably well and make money doing it. That’s good news for fiber advocates and communities – from Stockholm to Stratford, Ontario, Canada and Bristol, Virginia, USA – that decide to build their own networks. But it should not be confused with innovation in broadband applications. IPTV works because the business model is well established: an IPTV provider is trying to take market share from cable and satellite TV companies.
IPTV may turn out to be part of the Chattanooga story, but it is not what justified the network build-out. The utility constructed the fiber network to turn its electric system into an advanced smart grid, with a goal of trimming 40% from their generating capacity while significantly boosting reliability. Achieving that goal alone pays for the network – the communications revenue is just icing on the cake.
Having tried and failed to host a conference, Gig City has now picked what seems like a sure winner. They have launched a competition called Gig Tank to answer a crucial question: “What could you do with the world’s fastest Internet?”
Gig Tank is for both entrepreneurs and students. For the business-minded, Gig Tank will select ten teams and offer each $15,000 in investment capital to come to Chattanooga from May through August of this year. During that period, each will develop a gigabit business idea and test it on FTTP network under the guidance of local entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and angel investors. The best business plan will capture a cash prize of $100,000.
Students selected for the Gig Tank will spend the same summer in Chattanooga taking a gigabit application and building it into a working prototype. The best student-born idea hatched in the Gig Tank will take home a cash prize of $50,000 and a chance to pitch the business proposition to VCs and angel investors.
With Gig Tank, Chattanooga is trying to do something that nobody else is doing: imagine a future in which bandwidth is no longer a barrier. Their investment of a few hundred thousand dollars pales beside the cost of deploying FTTH, yet it may deliver a greater return than all the network builds in the world.
About the Intelligent Community Forum
The Intelligent Community Forum is a think tank that studies the economic and social development of the 21st Century community. Whether in industrialized or developing nations, communities are challenged to create prosperity, stability and cultural meaning in a world where jobs, investment and knowledge increasingly depend on advances in communications. For the 21st Century community, connectivity is a double-edge sword: threatening established ways of life on the one hand, and offering powerful new tools to build prosperous, inclusive and sustainable economies on the other. ICF seeks to share the best practices of the world's Intelligent Communities in adapting to the demands of the Broadband Economy, in order to help communities everywhere find sustainable renewal and growth. More information can be found at www.intelligentcommunity.org.
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.
ICF co-founder John G. Jung originated the Intelligent Community concept and continues to serve as the Forum's leading visionary. Formerly President and CEO of the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance and Calgary Economic Development Authority, he is a registered professional urban planner, urban designer and economic developer. He leads regular international business missions to US, European, Asian, Indian and Australian cities, and originated the ICF Immersion Lab program. John is a regular speaker at universities and conferences and serves as an advisor to regional and national leaders on Intelligent Community development. The author of numerous articles in planning and economic development journals, he has received global and Toronto-based awards for his work in collaboration and strategic development and sits on numerous task forces and international advisory boards.
ICF co-founder Louis Zacharilla is the creator and presenter of the annual Smart21, Top Seven and Intelligent Community Awards and oversees ICF's media communications and development programs. He is a frequent keynote and motivational speaker and panelist, addressing audiences of tech, academic and community leaders around the world, and writes extensively for publications including American City & County, Continental Airline's in-flight magazine and Municipal World. His frequent appearances in the electronic media have included both television and radio in South Korea, China and Canada. He has served as an adjunct professor at Fordham University in New York and is a Guest Lecturer at Polytechnic University's Distinguished Speaker Series. He holds a Masters Degree from the University of Notre Dame.
This Digital Communities white paper highlights discussions with IT officials in four counties that have adopted shared services models. Our aim was to learn about the obstacles these governments have faced when it comes to shared services and what it takes to overcome those roadblocks. We also spoke with several members of the IT industry who have thought long and hard about these issues. The paper offers some best practices for shared government-to-government services, but also points out challenges that government and industry still must overcome before this model gains widespread adoption.