Saturday, March 13, 2010

Communicate, communicate, communicate!

Responding to The New York Times March 13 article on high speed Internet.

The Internet lexicon laments the “digital divide” as if America were divided into ignorant hillbillies without Internet and the new, cool Internet hipsters. Recent discussions of the FCC "100 squared" initiative, i.e., 100 million people will get 100 megabit connectivity, emphasize the differences.

Reality is, of course, different than how the media presents it. American Internet usage should be divided into three categories, not two. Yes, there are some Internet hillbillies. They might have a ten year old computer, or they might have their secretary print out their emails. They enjoy hand written letters, or might occasionally receive an email or access some specific item over the Internet. They may be our parents or grandparents, or they might be kids in Amish homes. They may belong to a fundamentalist sect. There are two important points: first, there are not a lot of these people, and second, no government or private initiative is going to change them. I see this as similar to the home schooling movement -- immaterial to the discussion about our failing education systems. The "100 Squared" initiative should not be trying to change them.

At the other end of the spectrum are the crusaders, the hipsters. The complainers who think 100 megabits will still be too slow, behind the Netherlands, Korea, Japan, etc. The ones begging for Google's gigabit service for their city. They support "100 Squared" because it is at least moving in the right direction.

In the middle is the dangerous plurality, those that think they understand the Internet potential. They regularly do email. They have a Facebook page, and have seen videos on YouTube. They Skype with their friends, and do some on-line banking. As the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live said, "Isn't that special?"

The 1930s saw a huge expansion of the roads in the US as cars became mainstream. The WPA built bridges and the US highway system. Who would ever of thought we needed more? We could drive to California on US-66; it was finally paved in 1938. Eisenhower knew we needed something better - he had experienced the autobahns of Germany. Because of him, the world's finest highway system was built. We broke free of provincial local and state highway commissions and linked up our country. We need to do the same with our telecom infrastructure.

What would we do with the hyper-internet? Customer service calls could be full video, so the representative can show you the details on the product, demonstrate it, pull up the data sheet, put your account info on your screen, etc. It allows the account representative to be distant from the central office, perhaps working out of their island home. Head-mounted tiny wireless videocams are readily available now (skiers use them to record their runs). Engineers and repair people could be showing the details of repairing equipment, crawling under the truck or up the wind tower. A consumer could be walked through a repair of a tractor, or at least identify which parts need replacement. A gardener or farmer could walk through the plants showing the problems to an expert to find out what ails them: do the plants need more water, fertilizer, or what type of pesticide. Education can utilize fully immersive video so there is much more interaction. Top quality education can be distributed, and not limited by what the local school board and union does.

Movies and entertainment are obvious, but the less obvious is participating with live conferences and events. Compare jerky small screen video with large HD TV. Very few present consumers can support live HD video over Internet.

Tele-medicine is beginning. Today's slow speed Internet supports looking at medical records, but the huge files created by CAT scans and high resolution x-rays are not easily handled. Remote surgery has been tested by the military, and can be a way of getting sophisticated health care to rural areas at lower cost.

So why are those in the middle the dangerous plurality? They want to block the future and keep America behind, yet think they are acting responsibly. Is the government the solution? Rarely. Our challenge will be overcoming the provincialism and petty self interests, such as the lawsuits that tried to prevent the Interstate highway system from circumventing the traffic jams (and businesses) of the little down towns. Today's obstructionists are ATT and Verizon, intent on protecting their oligopoly of pricing and (lack of) performance with the aid of (pick one: corrupt | stupid | incompetent) government officials.

My argument is that our islands are in greatest need of the "hypernet" since we have so many other distance and isolation issues to overcome.

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