Mystery of the Broadband Universe

Recently, two American scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics for providing "increased support of the Big Bang. . . ." Whew. Now, perhaps they'll have time to solve a more pressing mystery of the broadband world: why you can't get 3Mbps of information through a 3Mbps connection.

Technology is frequently a numbers game, with the PC serving as the leading proponent. We've watched CPU speed ratings go up some 500-fold in the past 20 years - from the humble 4.77MHz of the IBM PC XT through the 2+GHz of today's machines.

None of us expects that our machines will work 500 times faster than machines of old. After all, we have more sophisticated operating systems and GUIs that exact their own price in CPU power. So we take those numbers with a grain of salt.

When it comes to the broadband pipeline, however, no salt should be necessary. Physics should rule. "X megabits per second" is a measurable capacity, just as liters or gallons per second. Unlike CPU cycles, capacity should not just vanish inexplicably. (OK, protocol overhead is a factor - but not a major one.)

When you buy a car with a 20-gallon fuel tank, you don't expect to have it start overflowing after 14 gallons. Nor would you expect your dealer to inform you that tank is rated as "up to 20 gallons." As in "we can guarantee you this tank will hold some amount less than 20 gallons but never more."

As bizarre as this sounds, it's how our benevolent broadband providers view the world. The world is a world of "up to" - but never exceeding.

From time to time, most of us find ourselves in a world where our broadband link yields but a trickle. If in the right mood, we can explore this mystery with those poor folks who staff tech support at our broadband provider.

And, if we had any reticence about accepting our situation as being something less than a mystery of the universe, that is put to rest during our tech-support session. Nobody else is having our "trickle" issue, and there is no possible explanation, because everything they see is fine.

Most of us don't bother calling anymore.

The real mystery is just what infrastructure is being used to carry our traffic and how far oversubscribed that infrastructure is.

Ironically, many service providers use the poor service to sell boost options. These, too, are up to offerings. All too often, the only guaranteed boost you'll get will be to your monthly bill.

This month, Apple and Amazon announced movie-download services that, according to The Wall Street Journal, manage to keep a 1.5Mbps pipe chugging for over two hours for a typical movie.

Should these kinds of services take off, the demand might finally break the backs of many service providers and cause them to "fess up" about what bandwidth they can realistically deliver. We can dream, can't we?

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