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The bandwidth charging sham
Bandwidth is effectively infinite and free so why are we charged for it?
Written in St Petersburg and dispatched to via a public 3G service at 1Mbps.

The network industries still try to sell us bandwidth as if it were a limited and precious resource. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Over 20 years ago I caused a minor controversy in the telecoms industry by asserting that:

Time and distance are irrelevant and bandwidth is effectively infinite and free.

Today, the fixed-line operators have largely adapted to the fact that time and distance are indeed irrelevant, which is borne out by their flat fees and package deals. However, they are still trying to grasp the fact that bandwidth is effectively infinite and free - and they continue to charge by quantity and the scale of downloads.

In complete contrast, the mobile operators don't understand any of it and enforce the charging regimes that go back more than 100 years to the time of the original fixed-line telephone networks.

Can this situation obtain for much longer? I don't think so. New technologies such as 4G and LTE plus fixed mobile cloud working with wi-fi, WiMax and Bluetooth will turn their 3G business models upside down.

Mobile operators enforce charging regimes that date back to the fixed-line networks of 100 years ago
Photo: lululemon athletica

So how come bandwidth is effectively infinite and free? In two words:optical fibre. This transport medium is ultra low-cost to produce, and rapidly recovers the initial investment once it is in service. In most of the world, the original long-line fibre lays occurred over 20 years ago and these pipes now spew out money.

In the local loop - that is, the first and last mile - optical fibre affords drastic cost reductions with reduced building stock, the removal of all street furniture, with far fewer people required to run the network.

Of course there are exceptions. For example when telecoms providers just replace copper topologies with fibre and continue to use the same buildings and street cabinets, the savings are far less dramatic.

The magic of fibre is that the provision of massive bandwidth is independent of cost. Unlike copper, the cost of transmitting 1Kbps, 1Mbps, 1Gbps and 1Tbps is more or less the same. And should you want to go to Pbps or even Ebps, then the same will most likely still be true in the future.

Beyond that, you may get away with a single fibre but having to use multifibres and multipaths offers a further capacity expansion. So let's assume infinite bandwidth is a reality for all practical purposes, since 1Gbps or 10Gbps to the home and office will suffice for some considerable time.

The snag is that the telecoms, cable and network community comes with a mindset established by an analogue-copper past of over 100 years. They have spent their entire history trying to save bandwidth and have successfully charged for it. For them to do an about-face is almost impossible. What would wasting bandwidth do for them? Here is a short list:

    - Reduce building stock and floor space.

    - Reduce and simplify equipment required.

    - Simplify network topology.

    - Simplify protocol stacks.

    - Remove latency.

    - Remove manual intervention.

    - Improve reliability and resilience.

    - Improve programmability and response times.

    - Transform service provision flexibility.

    - Transform quality of service.

    - Reduce truck rolls and manning levels.

    - Place network services under customer control.

This enviable and much needed list of improvements is there for the taking but it will probably be achieved over decades by small incremental steps because that is what established industries do.

So what of the wireless companies? The situation is even worse. We still see reports of bandwidth limitations and capacity limits of networks being exceeded. Those limitations may be real due to old mindsets - but certainly not in any fundamental sense.

Radio and wireless communication is no longer dominated by long-distance traffic. It is now short distance and local. Short-distance cells of less than 1km, 100m, 10m and 1m are the name of the game. And if these are terminated on a local optical fibre, then the capacity afforded is effectively infinite.

So far we have marginally exploited the wireless bands up to 30GHz, but there is the huge span from 30GHz to 300GHz that is largely untouched, plus of course the infrared optical spectrum.

Of course we shouldn't expect this facility on the top of Mount Everest or in the middle of the Amazonian jungle, but we can still get Kbps or Mbps via other means.

We need bandwidth, lots of bandwidth where the vast majority live and work - indeed, where the innovators, change agents and generators of GDP reside.

All we have to do is change a few mindsets and switch it on, and we will see networks and lives transformed.