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Opening the doors of the possibility factory

As network users become exposed to increasingly complex content forms, their needs will continue to rise. Without sufficient capacity to connect to the network, and a common vision of tomorrow's network, user demands and expectations will not be met.


March 1, 2001  


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American computer security expert Dr. Gene Spafford has likened parts of the Internet to “a herd of performing elephants with diarrhoea: massive, difficult to redirect, awe-inspiring, entertaining, and a source of mind-boggling amounts of excrement when you least expect it.” The same comparison applies to a baby, for today’s Internet is just that: a baby. Future generations will look back on the Internet ‘explosion’ of the last six years with the same gentle humour that we look back on the early days of mobile telephones today.

It has been said that “The Internet changes everything.” It does, and it changes nothing more so than the nature of the Internet itself. The author Kevin Kelly, in his book New Models for the New Economy, reflects that “a good definition of a network is organic behaviour in a technological matrix.” In what Dr. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, a physicist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, calls “the architecture of complexity”, we are beginning to see fractal similarities between networks of molecules in a cell, species in an ecosystem, and of people in social groups. The Internet, as a collection of diverse communities of common interest, can therefore be seen as an extension to these models: an extension that inherits all of the methods of those models and exhibits similar traits. In Internet terms, the demands and expectations of the nodes in the network lead to extremely rapid feedback and subsequent accelerated evolution.

THE NETWORKED MEDIA SPACE

This feedback loop is nowhere more evident than in the context of Internet content and delivery. As the need to provide more and more compelling content that will establish a community of interested, interactive nodes becomes more and more prevalent, the focus of intellectual and financial capital on that need creates more and more complex forms of content in the network. The convergence of text, images, voice, video and more is creating a new media environment: the networked media space, where interactive ‘storydwelling’ is a key pre-requisite to maintaining audience levels. Yesterday’s broadcast environment provided linear storytelling: sequenced events that were passed down with the assurance that “that’s how it is.” Today’s narrowcast cable and computer networks provide for, at best, interactive ‘storyforming’ — providing programmed, audio/visual content in a formal channelized environment with the provision for audience contribution and interaction on a small scale.

As network users become exposed to increasingly complex content forms, their expectations — and their ability to participate — rise and the desire to be part of the content model is spawned. Tomorrow’s media network will be decentralised, interactive, and infinitely diverse; consumers will truly determine the value and the relevance of the media consumed. As a consequence of this shift to storydwelling, to participating in content production and distribution, the nature of the content ‘consumer’ will change and this change will morph the traditional value chain.

The traditional value chain of content producer to distributor to marketer to consumer will be undone by the ongoing shift in the nature of content and content delivery. This shift will generate a value web in which every node will be able to play the part of producer, distributor, marketer, or consumer at any time. With every node (every user) having the potential to connect to every one of its peers, the part played by each user will depend on a variety of new model variables that existing physical and commercial networks are simply not prepared for. The appearance of this value web is a key component in the continued evolutionary process of the Internet as a whole. Where traditional media relegates humans to the level of consumers, tomorrow’s value web for converged content promotes humans as a fundamental source of creativity and community interaction. Content will be king.

QUEEN CONNECTIVITY

If content is to be king, then connectivity must surely be queen. Without sufficient capacity to connect to the network, or to the network of selected peers within the network, user demands and expectations will not be met. In what is probably the first example of a network application supporting the principles of the content value web, consider the now infamous Napster affair. Based on a distributed system known as Gnutella, Napster allows each individual user to offer content to a network of Napster peers. Using Gnutella techniques, content can be delivered from each user to any other user — effectively decentralizing and distributing network content throughout the network user base. On Sunday, January 21, 2001, Clip2 Distributed Search Solutions (Clip2DSS – http://www.gnutellahosts.com) reported that on the most usable segment of the Gnutella network, there were 1,789 hosts offering a reported 416,398 files with a total volume of 34,071 gigabytes. Note that this is on the “most usable segment of the network”, implying that there are other segments — increasing the volume of data available throughout the network. This is just one emerging application in the new media space.

Figure 1 shows a conservative forecast for growth in global network capacity demand for three ‘centralized’ applications between 2000 and 2003. The plot, derived as a product of throughput per application and an evenly smoothed number of incidences of application per second, shows an increase in demand from 1.9 terabits per second to 20.2 terabits per second over the three years. This is demand placed against the edge and core of the network as a whole. The addition of peer-to-peer demand, from applications such as Napster, iMesh, InfraSearch and others, exacerbates the basic problem and generates additional network bottlenecks at the point of access.

It is the case that a network is only as strong as its weakest link. Historically, the weakest link — the point in the network with the lowest connected capacity — has been at the user’s point of access. In both the consumer and corporate sectors, technological and financial issues have combined to provide less than optimal connectivity to the network as a whole. In short, the ability of a user to fully experience Internet content is throttled by the access technology in use. This can be likened to pouring a bucket of water into a funnel. Figures 2 and 3 below show forecast market shares for access technologies in Europe to 2005, derived from traditional methodology, and the network capacity demand — offered load — for Europe as a result.

THE BROADBAND EXPERIENCE

The access technology forecasts used to generate the previous figures do not, however, tell the whole story. The forecasts assume that the predominant access technology of choice will be fiber for the corporate sector, and Digital Subscriber Line for the consumer sector. This, in essence, is the core of the so-called ‘broadband revolution’. The term “broadband” has been widely misused and abused by analysts, network operators, and telecom companies alike to refer to the benefits of a particular technology that is intended to prolong the life of traditional consumer access networks. However, this technology, known as xDSL, is proving difficult to fund, problematic to implement, expensive to subscribe to, and less than the marketing campaigns had promised. In fact, recent evidence from the United States implies that there is no such thing as a broadband technology per se, but that there is a “broadband experience”, and it is this experience — from the perspective of the user — that is the most important factor of all. A broadband experience fulfils the promise of network media: rich, complex, diverse content can be amalgamated and delivered at a quality that meets, and potentially exceeds, the user’s expectations.

Figures 4 and 5 illustrate the impact on market share and offered load in the scenario where xDSL is proven to be an intermediate technology that users become dissatisfied with and tire of by 2002. Following present technology trends, t
he next step after xDSL is access technology focused on an average 10 megabit-per second (Mbps) access speed — whether provided by Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH), wireless local loop services, microwave or satellite. The forecasts shown in Figures 4 and 5 are, however, focused on a shift to an average 10 Mbps. If the shift were to 100 Mbps or greater, the impact would be far greater. It is contended that as true media convergence (providing television, radio, Internet, and telephony services through a single point of contact and physical provisioning) takes place, the access network of tomorrow will look dramatically different to the one seen today.

When true convergence is achieved, there must be sufficient capacity available at each network tier to meet the delivery promise made to the user. Similarly, the provisioning of such capacity must obey the dynamics of Internet Protocol (IP) traffic and be flexible and dynamic in nature. Consumers and corporate sector users alike must take active control of their communications needs in order to realize commercial and financial benefits. In market terms, the customer — not the provider — will control the communications relationship. The power inherent in a network of users translates directly as a market force: conversations among users in the market will have more power than any marketing campaign, and more impact than was ever before possible. The competitive playing field will, for once, be focused on the ability to provide what the user demands, rather than on what the technology provides.

This fundamental shift in the communications mindset is one of the biggest challenges facing both users and providers of communications services today. We are, to paraphrase Steven Balmer of Microsoft, at an inflection point. Communications providers — whether telecom companies or next-generation network operators — must accept that the traditional commercial and financial models for service provision are being made obsolete by the continuing advance of the Internet and IP technologies. In parallel, communications users have to understand the possibilities and potential inherent in the network itself, and be prepared to modify their personal and professional communications models accordingly.

To some extent, this challenge is being met. Communications providers are active in the investigation and adoption of next-generation technologies, and in the determination of models for advanced services provision. Yet, such providers are being outpaced by the rise in user expectations, due to media complexity within the network. However, this circumstance is simply indicative of the evolutionary nature of the network as a whole. Without this evolution towards a common vision of tomorrow’s network, much of the potential inherent in that network will be lost and the doors of the possibility factory will remain firmly closed.CS

David is Practice Director, eServices & infrastructure with The Phillips Group. Based at the company’s London, UK office, Mr. Prior is currently involved in examining the dynamics and economics of bandwidth and issues surrounding the application infrastructure. He has held various information and communications technology roles in blue-chip companies in Europe, Scandinavia, North America, The Middle East and Australasia, and speaks frequently on the impact of Internet technologies. He can be reached at dprior@the-phillips-group.com.


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