Fast broadband: hype vs reality gap remains

AT&T's latest acquisition examined

The rebirth of AT&T and its sudden expansion by gobbling up BellSouth, has again propelled next-generation broadband services to the front page of The Wall Street Journal. And it is not just DSL and cable vendors vying for supremacy. Verizon is investing heavily in fibre to the home (FTTH)) to boost bandwidth. At the same time, other companies are poised to leverage next-generation IEEE 802.16 WiMAX wireless to deliver metropolitan bandwidth without ditch-digging. Ultimately, we’ll choose from among them — but on what basis?

If it is true that past is prologue, we’ll choose by weighing what kind of service bundle (telephony, data, TV and so on), and what monthly price. We’ll do this without having the vaguest idea how the service provider will deliver these services. And, we’ll find no guarantees from the service provider about the quality or availability of the bundle we buy.

The stakes for corporate network managers and small- and medium-sized businesses are high. Broadband services are, increasingly, the primary service linking remote office workers, telecommuters and others to the corporate network and other resources.

Ironically, in this most central of high-tech endeavours (the network connecting everyone to everything), corporate and consumer broadband buyers have shockingly little quantitative information to go on.

Car manufacturers tout the technological breakthroughs of their new vehicles, but you won’t find that in the broadband world.

The best that you’ll get from your broadband provider is a vague reference that goes something like, “Up to 70 times faster than dialup.” And, when that mere 4Mbit/s isn’t good enough, you can pay more for premier service and get “up to 6Mbit/s”. No guarantees, of course.

Broadband providers seem to have a secret pact with each other, knowing that once one of them provides factual data about their networks and performance they might all have to do it.

While cable providers, for example, brag about how great cable is and how it is an urban myth that response time is degraded when the neighbourhood kids log-on after school, I, and others like me, still experience these supposedly non-existent problems.

The contrast between the happy-face home pages of the broadband providers and reality of their services as reported by some unhappy consumers on Broadband Reports is stunning.

Why don’t broadband providers brag about their infrastructure? Perhaps because much of any given service provider’s network is in a state of shambles, with only a small percentage of the infrastructure near state-of-the-art quality.

These providers don’t give buyers any inkling as to their oversubscription policy. There is nothing barring a service provider selling, say, 6Mbit/s service to 100 customers who have to pass through the same 100Mbit/s connection to the internet.

There is no way that any more than a fraction of them will get their full 6Mbit/s at any given time. Would you pay the upgrade premium (often 50%) if you knew of this situation? I wouldn’t. And the broadband provider gets off the hook by having a little footnote that states “speed not guaranteed” on the order form. Is that fair to consumers?

Do any of these new offerings provide clear technological advantages? If so, they should prove it.

Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company based in Florida.

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