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Keeping up with demand in an instant gratification economy

Jun 25, 20155 mins

A boom or recession in the "Instant Gratification Economy” hinges on the quality of the user experience: a lag in connection is the networking equivalent of the Dow plummeting.

We’ve lost our collective ability to be patient. What used to be a virtue is now anathema because we have become so accustomed to having what we want when we want it, that we’ve simply forgotten what it’s like to “wait it out.”

Need proof? We shifted our viewing habits to over-the-top video services quicker than it ever took us to walk to the nearest Blockbuster – yet many have already forgotten the formerly inconvenient task of walking, and now complain that an instance of buffering while streaming video means the service is “too slow.” To wit, recent industry-sponsored research found that a poor experience such as buffering or poor-quality video drives almost 75% of viewers to give up in watching within the first four minutes of playback.

In short, our experience needs to be perfect from the start, because if it isn’t, we won’t stick around for the end.

Businesses are fighting to be the first to meet this need for perfection. Look at how Uber has transformed the transport industry and turned formerly parked cars into unbranded taxis, or how Tinder has taken the dating world from the restaurant to the smartphone. Or how Spotify has taken the apparent chore out of buying a song in favor of a streaming service available anywhere, free, and with almost every song imaginable. Well, except for anything by Taylor Swift.

Some have dubbed this phenomenon the “Instant Gratification Economy,” and a boom or recession in it hinges on the quality of the user experience. A lag in connection is the networking equivalent of the Dow plummeting.

As Jeff Heynen, Infonetics research director for broadband access and pay TV, recently noted: “Consumers essentially saved the fixed broadband business by binge-ing on Netflix and other streaming video services, and now broadband providers are consistently investing in higher-end FTTX and DOCSIS 3.0 technologies to keep those innovators happy.”

If we were simply happy with what we had, we’d be fine with DSL. Instead, we want more capacity, less lag, massive scalability and everything current networks and pipes simply aren’t able to provide. Enterprises and network providers, to be fair, are more than aware of it and they’re looking at ways to whet the appetites of the masses. Some companies are looking at providing an enhanced, seamless experience by moving their content closer to the consumer through increasing local caching capabilities in data centers that are physically closer to the bulk of demand. Ensuring the connections between data centers is efficient, stable, and smart is on the agenda for these web-scale companies, and further upgrading the connections between content and consumer is also on the itinerary to ensure content can be distributed quickly and on demand. It’s why $40 billion was spent on spectrum to further increase capacity at the edge. 

This is just one part of the puzzle, however.

A more intelligent method of networking is needed to cater to the unpredictable spikes in demand that OTT services, cloud services, and Internet of Everything devices will force upon it. The network of the future will need to scale to meet these sudden spikes and do so seamlessly. Capacity will need to be on-demand, and the global network will need to re-route traffic on its own. Technologies that can ramp resources up or down as required and predict the spikes before they occur, and virtualizing aspects of the network itself will go a long way towards preparing the networks to cater for the demands of tomorrow. In addition, bringing the edge up to speed through optimizing their connections back to the source of the content is paramount to ensuring a seamless consumer experience.

There is no easy fix that can overwhelmingly ensure we are capable of meeting increasing demands placed upon the networks. Connecting the edge to the core with fiber is one step; handing over the operation of the networks to software is another, as it enables the network to be programmed to run intelligently itself, to self-heal, and to upgrade networking functions as required.

None of these solutions, in a vacuum, are a panacea; together, they deliver an opportunity to keep up with demand. But as the networks continue to evolve, something comes along which demands even more out of them – think 4K streaming or cloud-based Full HD gaming.

There may never be a point where the network can stand on its laurels, because the consumer will always want more. It means the network may be in a perpetual state of evolution – and maybe that’s a good thing. After all, evolution of our networks got us to the point that you are reading this now, online, on a smartphone or laptop or tablet. You might be on the road, you might be on the couch. Wherever you are, you’re reading this because the network evolved from a copper phone line, and it continues to evolve right now. The quickest to evolve, however, are the first to leap ahead.


With more than 20 years of telecom experience, Mr. Alexander is currently serving as Ciena’s Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. Mr. Alexander has held a number of positions since joining the Company in 1994, including General Manager of Ciena's Transport & Switching and Data Networking business units, Vice President of Transport Products and Director of Lightwave Systems.

From 1982 until joining Ciena, Mr. Alexander was employed at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, where he last held the position of Assistant Leader of the Optical Communications Technology Group. Mr. Alexander is an IEEE Fellow and was the recipient of the IEEE Communications Society Industrial Innovation Award in 2012. He is currently an Associate Editor for the IEEE / OSA Journal of Optical Communications and Networking. He has served as a member of the Federal Communications Commission Technological Advisory Council, as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Lightwave Technology, as a member of the IEEE / LEOS Board of Governors, and was a General Chair of the conference on Optical Fiber Communication (OFC) in 1997.

Mr. Alexander received both his B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has been granted 18 patents and has authored a text on Optical Communication Receiver Design as well as numerous conference and journal articles.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Steve Alexander and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.