Are you content with content?

Ah, broadband. You sly old troublemaker, you. You've been a bit of a floozy, haven't you? Chatting up that nice Theresa Gattung at Telecom again. I know, I know, it's not your fault. You're misunderstood, really. I believe you. No, really, I do.

Ah, broadband. You sly old troublemaker, you. You've been a bit of a floozy, haven't you? Chatting up that nice Theresa Gattung at Telecom again.

I know, I know, it's not your fault. You're misunderstood, really. I believe you. No, really, I do.

Broadband, you see, isn't taking off in New Zealand quite as quickly as its proponents would like.

Telecom's six-monthly report has a wee bit to say on broadband. Telecom's DSL solution, JetStream, has doubled its user base in a year. That's right, there are now twice as many of us, and slightly less of them. However, there are only 56,000 users of JetStream and I bet a large percentage of those are JetStream Starter customers who, with their rates limited to 128Kbit/s, aren't really broadband at all.

Telecom isn't the only game in town when it comes to broadband and JetStream isn't the only technology. Ihug has its satellite-based service with a few thousand customers. TelstraClear has its fibre network in Wellington and other customers dotted around the land. CityLink has central Wellington sewn up with its own fibre loop and there are an ever increasing number of telcos, and would-be telcos, hell-bent on providing a broadband service to regional and rural customers as well, be they residential or business.

But Telecom has the lion's share.

Traditionally, Telecom has offered services like ISDN or ATM to commercial customers at a huge mark-up. Sure, they're older technologies and so not as efficient as the upstart DSL or fibre, let alone wireless. Still, there are a number of companies happily making use of leased lines and their ilk and seemingly happy paying through the nose for a service that DSL comes very close to matching for a fraction of the cost (if not always the reliability).

Telecom is in something of a bind here. It makes a lot of money from these older lines, and to offer DSL with higher levels of service guaranteed would mean cannibalising its own customer base. Instead, DSL is billed in such a way -- per-megabyte charging -- that makes it very costly for the end user to actually use. Exceed your traffic limit, often referred to as a download limit even though this ignores the uploading, and you're paying 20 cents per megabyte. This can soon add up.

But cost, so we're told, isn't the only reason for the low take-up rate of DSL. Sure, JetStream users have doubled in a year, but they still account for a tiny fraction of the possible user base. Gattung believes it's because of a lack of content and applications. I discussed this question of content with Colin Goodwin, Ericsson's regional product manager for multi-service networks. He made the very good point that content as we know it today is a very recent phenomenon and that five years ago "content" didn't really exist.

Content, says Goodwin, tends to be thought of as something that is pushed at users, who sit there passively consuming it. This is not the case at all. The original killer app was email -- content provided by the end user who used the network to connect to other users. Simple. No need for the telco or "content provider" to do anything other than get out of the way. This is a lesson that perhaps AOL-Time Warner will learn but I fear it's too late for the behemoth, with its $US100 billion lost down the back of the content couch.

A perfect example of the ideal broadband killer application is online gaming: these massive multiple online role playing games (MMORPG) like EverQuest or Asheron's Call. Sony, so legend tells us, didn't want to know when first approached about hosting EverQuest. What's it all about, they cried? Well, it turns out it's a licence to print money. People will pay $US30 a month to play a game with other people. All you have to do is host the traffic. Shouldn't that be illegal?

Speaking of illegal, peer-to-peer file sharing is another great example of a solution to this broadband question. A minor technical hitch with the whole copyright thing, but that's not the point. The application was there.

So I say forget about content, forget about trying to find the killer application. Let the end users do what they want with the network, provide them with a connection they're happy to pay for and stand well back. You'll be amazed by the end results. Remember that when the telephone was invented it was going to be a way of broadcasting musical concerts to the masses.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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