Saturday, April 7, 2012

Spectrum crunch – a new commodity problem

In a memo last week, Procter & Gamble told its 129,000 employees that they can no longer use the music-streaming site Pandora or the movie site Netflix at work. Apparently, the motivation was not censorship but bandwidth management. According to the memo, the company’s web capacity was over-taxed by employees’ over-access of streaming content at work. 

As more and more consumers, schools, and businesses need Web access and data-rich content to function, infrastructure and carriers are struggling with the so-called bandwidth "spectrum crunch." An educational site School 2.0 offers a nice calculator to show how quickly your 2mbps DSL connection can choke under the pressure of multiple data streaming.

Whereas streaming audio can vary between 64kbps and 128kbps, video streaming can very easily consume a throughput of 1mbps or higher (e.g., Netflix’s top HD streaming is about 4800kbps or 4.8mbps). The situation could get worse with the growing diversity of applications such as VoIP telephony, video conferencing, Skyping, streaming video, online gaming and any interactive apps needing constant exchange of data from the cloud or between peers. In fact, mobile, home and office data traffic is supposed to be doubling every year at least for the next 4 to 5 years.

Clearly, there is a gap between growing cloud computing and the availability of bandwidth to support and deliver the service. Think of it this way, suddenly a new system of on-demand beverage delivery is established where you do not have to stock cans of soda or bottles of juice or need coffee machines anymore. Instead you are asked to upgrade your home plumbing so that you can tap anything from the same faucet. Think of a scenario under this ‘cloud based beverage supply’ model where groceries stopped selling coke, tea or coffee. You are now completely dependent on this new high-tech plumbing. If your plumbing is not adequate, you have to wait for your soda because one of your family members is taking a shower and clogging the bandwidth with heavy-duty water streaming!!

Our life is increasingly morphing with the assumption of  24/7 connectivity. The only thing worse than a day without electricity is a day without internet. Yet the plumbing infrastructure for home, office or mobile is clearly in a catch up mode. While the media is abuzz with cloud computing, smart home, smart grid and smart everything, many rural US homes are still without adequate connectivity. The mobile connections are still largely 2.5G to 3G. The broadband data-centric wireless LTE or 4G will continue to be a small slice of the market for a while. And it will be a much longer while, before they are affordable for the public. Are we having the proverbial cart of streaming content before the horse? 

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