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Thinking About Broadband

I’m a little behind in my BusinessWeek reading, so I only recent read their September 8th commentary on “How To Get Broadband Up To Speed.” I suspect reading it requires a subscription, so I’ll excerpt the bit that bugs me:

The final piece of the puzzle is content. Relatively few U.S. consumers will buy broadband simply because it’s fast. They need compelling applications. One of the most promising, the ability to download and swap music, video, and other forms of entertainment, has been bogged down by legal controversy and questions about whether people will pay for digital music.

The final piece is not “content,” at least not how they mean. Folks at BusinessWeek, and others interested in the business of broadband, would be wise to read Andrew Odlyzko’s articles on communication networks. I first appreciated his work when I read Content Is Not King, which put the lie to the idea that “content” drives internet usage, which had been a common fallacy in the everything-Web era.

Andrew’s most recent essay, The Many Paradoxes of Broadband, is an essential overview to what is happening in that space. And, again, suggests the that the focus from the likes commentators at BusinessWeek is misplaced. More bandwidth does not mean the internet will turn into a couch-potato paradise. If you look at the trends, it’s much more likely that more bandwidth will mean better communications–clearer signals, maybe more group interactions, maybe video, etc.

This is not to say that content won’t play a role — clearly, content played a role on the Web, just not the lead role. But it is to say that we shouldn’t look to content to drive broadband adoption.

Now, there’s one place where there’s a big exception to this: among the drivers of broadband adoption, file-sharing of music is huge. Music, though, is not your typical “content.” I would argue that recorded music consumption is as much about identity, and, thus, about communication, as it is about listening to the music itself. And that the trends you see in music swapping you won’t see in film swapping, even when films are as easy to download. Think about audiobooks — the audiobook industry isn’t freaking out over people sharing audiobooks through KaZaA. Because, basically, people don’t. (Yes, you can find audiobooks through KaZaA, but that’s clearly not driving broadband acquisition). So, what’s driving broadband here is still less about “content” and more about identity, communication, source material for playlists, mix CDs, etc. etc.

Oh. And games. I almost forgot to mention games. Games will stimulate broadband adoption. But not for the “game” aspect (naturally), but for massively-multiplayer aspect. Which is, natch, another form of communication.

  1. Audiobooks aren’t popular downloads because the demographic that buys them isn’t the same demographic that has embraced heavy file sharing. I would guess that if you polled heavy users of p2p and asked what medium they spent most of their free time using, books would be a distant fifth after movies, tv, videogames and music. I don’t think those kids I see on the bus reading “Fight Club” would ever think to buy an audiobook of it.

    Also, aren’t many 6-8 hour audio books still sold on tape? That’s a huge barrier to mp3. And if they are on CD, it is several CDs. Even at a low bitrate, many CDs of data is quite a bit to fileshare, both in bandwidth and organization. Most people use audiobooks in cars, so you would have to burn them. Unlike a few hit pop songs, it’s so much easier just to buy an audiobook.

    The film geeks that get region-free players so they can watch imported DVDs from other countries would most certainly trade ripped DVDs like people trade music. But there are a lot less true film geeks than people who want to download live and rare U2 songs. And it will be many years before downloading 5 gigs is a breeze.

  2. There is a correlation between your last post Peter (academics and Web content) and this post on consumers signing up for broadband. The correlation involves another variable, hosting. There is a rather limited set of broadband resources available, on the whole. The contains a preponderance of text-based information as it takes up relatively little space and it is quick to download. Photos and images comprise the next layer, which are more dense and require a little more bandwidth to load and download. The cost for individuals and business units in cost sharing environments for hosting is largely based upon megabytes for storage and megabytes of information traffic from the server.

    The lack of broadband content, when asking content creators, is often limited by hosting and telecommunications costs. With government agencies now having to add a layer of content to videos content, so that the content is accessible also slows down the posting of content. When the decision is made to post bandwidth intensive content, like videos, increasingly there is an added cost to consume this content (often to defray the hosting and telecommunication costs). The added cost of content on top of the additional cost for broadband seems to compound the problem.

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