Keeping the Future at Bay Remains a Fruitless Calling

Fred Dawson, Editor, ScreenPlays Magazine

Fred Dawson, Editor, ScreenPlays Magazine

Would the Coen Brothers’ True Grit have won this year’s Best Picture Oscar if theater goers could have smelled the funky characters and their worn-out mounts? Maybe, but the olfactory experience may have severely hurt the box office take.
The question comes to mind as one that could concern producers a few years hence, if the Cisco survey of industry professionals reported elsewhere is a true reflection of where things are going. But whether we’ll be reflecting on such issues anytime soon remains to be seen.

That’s because the fanciful as well as practical predictions about tomorrow’s entertainment experience are only a bookend to the reality we’re in. The other bookend can be found in the developments in North Carolina and Washington as in other recent stories.

In truth, we’re at a moment when the technological capabilities of the connected society seem boundless, not only respecting entertainment but, more importantly, quality of life, from economic growth to energy efficiency to reduced health costs to better education. Four trials touching on such benefits are underway in rural enclaves employing so-called “white space” technology, demonstrating what can be done with unused TV channel spectrum with unlicensed applications of advanced “cognitive” RF devices – what some are calling next-generation Wi-Fi.

In Salisbury, N.C., where the Fibrant all-fiber network built by the city was grandfathered out of the newly passed state law barring other cities from following suit, the impact of high-bandwidth broadband has been remarkable, according to local business people, educators and citizens in general. “Fiber optic technology is far superior to the other technology currently used by these telecommunication companies,” says Brad Walser, owner of Walser Technology Group, a Web consulting business in Salisbury. “Certain areas within the city limits cannot receive reliable bandwidth. We host Web sites, e-mails, off-site data storage, and for them to get that data to us, they need a good connection to the Internet.”

Fibrant was gearing up to use its network and the operating platform it runs on to help link other cities in North Carolina and beyond, creating a wide area environment for sharing resources and linking socially and economically beneficial applications across the region – until the state passed the “Level Playing Field/Local Government Competition Act.” With the city doing all it could to prevent the legislation from forcing it to close down its new network, all thoughts of promoting a pooling of municipal efforts to bring next-gen broadband commerce to life went out the window, says a source close to developments there. “It’s not a good climate to be taking this to the next level,” this person says, asking not to be named.

What the white space wireless and North Caroline municipal broadband efforts have in common is they hit a wall of resistance from entrenched interests, barely winning in the case of white space and losing in North Carolina. It boggles the mind.

Why, one must ask, if the technological wherewithal is out there to create the kind of entertainment experience professionals are envisioning with all its power to drive new subscription and advertising revenues would incumbent interests be wasting any time and capital on preventing attainment of the high-bandwidth reach that such opportunities require? What could possibly motivate such interests to fight public entities that want to bring the social benefits of broadband to their populations in areas where incumbent providers have not invested in network capacity expansion to the levels required by these communities?

As the 15th ranked nation in terms of broadband access and data rates, the U.S. has every reason to be pulling out all the stops to let individuals at all levels share in the economic and social benefits accruing with the spread of broadband connectivity. If incumbents aren’t motivated on their own to grasp the opportunities as technology races on, surely they will discover that motivation whenever someone else sees fit to do so. In fact, it’s amazing how fast incumbent networks get upgraded when somebody starts building fiber network in their areas.

Most of the visions articulated in the Cisco survey should be much closer at hand than the report suggests. It all depends on whether the competitive incentives to drive bandwidth expansion are allowed to flourish.