Residential: They’re not ‘consumers’ - they’re ‘producers’

The “best effort” service never really received the provider’s best efforts. It’s really a lot like the old Jerry Seinfeld joke showing the gold and silver medalists in an Olympic race – half a head’s lead separating the “best guy in the world” from the “never heard of him.”

Broadband providers have long treated residential customers as also-rans. Sure, residential broadband has been an important part of service provider’s plans, but this “best effort” service never really received the provider’s best efforts. It’s really a lot like the old Jerry Seinfeld joke showing the gold and silver medalists in an Olympic race - half a head’s lead separating the “best guy in the world” from the “never heard of him.”

Well, residential customers have long been the “never heard of him” of the broadband world. Let’s face it, even the word used to describe them  - “consumers” - is really quite telling when you consider it. But the fact is, consumers are really becoming producers too. And this trend means that current ideas about residential broadband QoS, upstream speeds, service packages, etc. doesn’t really account for the future of broadband services.

Now as we discuss consumers becoming “producers,” we’re not talking about some sort of idealistic “decentralization” of professional entertainment content, or about fighting the RIAA by creating our own music, or anything like that. Instead we’re talking about mainstream applications and convergence trends that don’t rely upon any kind of major paradigm shifts - these are things that are happening now.

For example, consider digital photography. The trends are clear here: digital cameras are outselling film cameras, with file sizes growing exponentially. And digital cameras don’t necessarily have to be digital cameras these days - think about all of the mobile phones, PDAs and other devices with built-in cameras. This all adds up to a huge amount of home-produced data that’s piling up on hard drives throughout the country and - more importantly - being uploaded to photo sites, personal Web pages and e-mail servers.

Another example is VoIP. VoIP, as practiced today, is a relatively low-impact application, at least in terms of network resources. But VoIP can and will change over time. For example, think of a scenario where multiple calls are terminated simultaneously. Then add in collaboration and videoconferencing - you end up with a significant bandwidth demand, with upstream, latency and other QoS requirements that can tax most existing residential broadband services.

All of these broadband-stressing applications are being driven by some basic trends within the home. The first is the adoption of home networking systems enabling broadband network access from anywhere in the home. Wireless networks are leading this trend today, but even higher performance home networks are visible on the horizon - with 802.11n pre-spec gear becoming available, and with wired and no-new wires alternatives becoming more viable. For example, structured wiring is becoming the norm, not the exception in new construction. We even know of an example, in Loma Linda, Calif., where home networking infrastructures have been written into law as a part of the city’s building code.

Secondly, more devices are becoming broadband-ready. For example, TiVos, gaming consoles, even TVs are connecting to the broadband network. This trend marches in lock step with the home networking trend - as home networks expand, the number of connectable devices is increasing exponentially. We’ve quickly gone from one or two PCs, to two or more PCs, a couple of PDAs, set top boxes, game consoles, media adapters, home security systems and more, all looking for connections to the broadband network. Each of these devices has its own impact on the broadband connection, and its own specific requirements for QoS.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there’s simply more data flowing onto and off of these home network and broadband-connected devices.  File and stream sizes are increasing rapidly as higher resolution formats hit the market and entertainment content evolves from standard definition to high definition, and from stereo to multichannel. For example, high definition camcorders have hit the market at consumer price points in the past few months, driving a substantial increase in the size of home movies. At the same time, storage prices and capacities follow a curve that exceeds even Moore’s law in semiconductors - meaning that residential users have a place to put this kind of content. Terabyte network-connected hard drives are now on the market, and while they’re not cheap, neither are they out of reach for high-end consumers today; they’ll certainly follow a downward price curve very rapidly.

All of this means that broadband service providers are going to need to do more - much more - to keep up with their residential customers.

We should add right now that broadband providers are aware of this issue. Telcos, for example, helped push TR-059 through the DSL forum well over a year ago, with the thought that it could help support exactly this kind of high quality residential broadband service. What we’ve not seen yet, however, is any of the fruits of that labor.

Keep this in mind: if you don’t offer this “residential class” service to your customers, someone else just might. Oh, and the folks in Loma Linda? They’re not waiting around - they’ve also included fiber to the home in their building code and made it a city law, just to ensure that residents get what they need from broadband.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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