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Catching the Vision of Open-Access Broadband

July 19th, 2012


“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

The quote above, attributed to Thomas Watson in 1943, when he was chairman and CEO of IBM, is an illustrative example of shortsightedness and bad predictions.

While useful in that regard, there’s one minor problem: there is no evidence Watson actually said it. My idea was to use Watson’s quote in relation to people who may think 10Mbps connectivity is sufficient for our information-driven world. Due diligence revealed the apocryphal nature of the quote.

Still, in 1952, Howard Aiken, a pioneer in computing and also a key player at IBM, said, “Originally, one thought that if there were a half dozen large computers in this country, hidden away in research laboratories, this would take care of all requirements we had throughout the country.” We’ve come a long way, as there are more than a billion computers in use worldwide, with the number expected to exceed 2 billion by 2015 (reference).

So what does it say that an expert in his field could be so far off the mark? Obviously the very nature of computers themselves changed, from room-sized calculators to what now can fit easily on a desk…or even in our pockets. One can’t really fault Aiken (and Watson, if he actually did say it), because technology has grown by quantum leaps in a very short time (yes, 60 years is a short time).

The key is that we don’t duplicate the lack of vision involving broadband infrastructure. Just like since Aiken’s day, we’ve come a long way. Cable modems introduced broadband, and DSL can meet the needs of light users, but we are once again at the forefront of a shift in ways to maximize the Internet. Nearly two years ago, a New York Times article focused on this:

The need for core network improvement is pressing, said Stojan Radic, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, San Diego. “We are looking at a point soon where we cannot satisfy demand,” he said. “And if we don’t, it will be like going over a cliff.”

Demand is continually growing, somewhere below street level, as details of our e-mail, bank balances and national security zip along on light waves. And consumers can’t get enough video clips on YouTube, television shows on Hulu, and movies streamed to them by Netflix that they watch on their computers and TVs.

But that’s just a fraction of the traffic. Add to it the many demands of cloud computing and countless mobile devices and information databases, for example, and the totals become even harder to imagine.

Fiber alleviates these network demands. The key issue with fiber isn’t the backbone or the “middle mile,” but the “last mile,” getting high-bandwidth fiber right to the home. That’s what UTOPIA is solving. Incumbents like CenturyLink and Comcast aren’t going to do it; the ROI doesn’t work for them, but the current model does. And because our infrastructure is open access, we’re striving to give consumers in our member cities a real choice.

That is our vision. We’re not going to be blindsided by the wave of advancing technology.