Copper bottomed

We have demand for services which are slightly beyond our grasp. Virtual private networking, tunnelling, voice over IP, video conferencing; all these things have been touted as available today. All suffer without adequate network bandwidth or reliability.

I had my first DSL micro-outage the other day. The first one I noticed, at any rate.

I was opening a website I'd been to earlier in the day. While that was fine, probably because it was cached on my machine, it was as far as I got. I tried to send an ICQ message to comrade Kirstin in Dunedin as she was still listed as being online, but that didn't work either, so I tried to refresh my email. Then the penny dropped.

My JetStream connection was cut off.

I took a look at the status of my Nokia M1122 modem using the browser interface and it told me I was not connected and that the thing that says it should be PAP was in fact saying NONE. Well, I wasn't going to take that lying down, so I told it to be PAP and refreshed the browser and I was back online.

All very strange.

Ironically, as I write this from the office (the work, rather than home, one), we're suffering not a micro-outage but a major one -- no email, web or instant messaging. Of course it's lunchtime, so the tech boys are probably distracted by CounterStrike. I should point out also that we don't use Telecom as our provider.

The problem, as the bard says, is the gap. We have demand for services which are slightly beyond our grasp. Virtual private networking, tunnelling, voice over IP, video conferencing; all these things have been touted as available today. All suffer without adequate network bandwidth or reliability and so all are still sitting there, waiting to be taken up.

Sitting in my home office I have access to our Lotus Notes database but not to our LAN.

That's not too much of a problem as I don't much use the databases that are dotted around it, but if I was one of those workers who needed that access, my phone bill would go through the roof. I'd have to subscribe to a service like IP.Networking or IP.Remote from Telecom, adding about $500 a month to the cost of my JetStream 600 connection.

So what we have is an economic model that is holding back technology, which in turn holds back businesses from taking advantage of the technology to improve their economic position. Until telcos see the benefits in opening up their networks to anyone wanting to do anything -- within reason -- we're stuck. Kiwis are great ones for innovating and for taking a product and seeing what else it will do. Square peg with a round hole? No worries, mate. I've got a small engine over here that is just crying out for a square peg and the missus needs that other bit for her rotary hoe. However, we can't do that because the model says "surf the net, read your email" and not "discover new market, make millions of dollars".

Once the fibre boys come into the market with their guns blazing we should see some action. Last year I spoke to Telstra's then head of networks, who talked about planning fibre providing not just DSL-equivalent speeds of 2Mbit/s or 4Mbit/s but of 10Mbit/s and even 100Mbit/s to the desktop. He wasn't talking about one day in the distant future; he was talking about one day in the next five years.

Wholesale broadband companies like UnitedNetworks are telling a similar story. All of those applications that we're craving, that will allow workers to be remote yet have the same access as their desk-bound colleagues, that will allow offices to hold virtual meetings or to establish new business models like ASP offerings, are beyond the capabilities of copper. For any of this you have to have fibre's unlimited potential.

Setting aside the promise of wireless, only fibre will allow a business to expand beyond the "email, phone and surf" paradigm.

There's one problem: pretty much everyone with a fibre game plan is only looking at central business districts. Forget working from home unless you're in an apartment in the city. Residential users and those businesses that aren't in the CBD are pretty much out of the loop for at least the foreseeable future. Again.

So telecomms incumbents around the world are trying their damnedest to eke more out of copper, but it's going to be a losing battle. Copper's almost at breaking point now.

Telecom is, it seems, having a closer look at other forms of DSL, so there may be some life in the old dog yet. There will have to be, really, if all those garages and workshops at the end of the garden are to get with the knowledge economy.

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

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