TCS Daily


"Girls, Gambling and Games": In Search Of Killer Apps

By Duane D. Freese - December 20, 2001 12:00 AM

What's needed to get and keep broadband rolling?

The Commerce Department's Technology Administration trudged into that miry question this week. The agency brought together officials from key associations for cable, telecommunications and entertainment, as well as officials from key businesses such as Cisco, Intel and Microsoft on two panels focused on a series of technology and deployment questions, among them:

Is there public demand for digital media? Is it coming online? What barriers - legal, regulatory, practical and technological - keep it from coming online? What bandwidth do various digital media need to work? Will demand for digital media drive broadband adoption or deployment? What government policies, business needs, legal constraints or other factors are barriers to more digital media online?

The bottom line of all the questions and the talk though is what will make broadband something people want to buy?

For in point of fact, despite claims by incumbent local phone monopolies about the need to incentivize them to deploy their brand of broadband - digital subscriber lines, or DSL - deployment isn't the big problem. As Bruce Mehlman, Commerce undersecretary for technology policy, pointed out in his opening remarks at workshop: "broadband availability is growing at a torrid pace." Almost 90 percent of American households will have broadband available to them next year.

Rather, broadband's problem is adoption. So far, only 10 percent of consumers are subscribing to broadband. And while there are many reasons they haven't, the key one is that they just don't see that there's much value in doing so at current prices. In short, if households, as opposed to businesses, are going to pay the price, they need, as Mehlman said, "'killer' multimedia content, such as music, movies and games."

"Girls, Gambling and Games"

This need for killer applications crosses all broadband lines and national borders. Bruce Jackson of Wireless Java specialist Elata told Newsbytes' London-based reporter Steve Gold that third generation - 3G - wireless services won't take off until users are given something more for their money than high-speed Internet access.

And what might they be? "One of the carriers I've spoken to about these applications says that 3G will come down to girls, gambling and games," Jackson said.

Clever, that. But it raises another big question: If wider bandwidth for the home is basically a tool to speed up downloads of pornography and provide a faster way for kids to lose money and waste time, why should government facilitate it? Most taxpayers - and most parents - would say forget it. They would prefer government discourage such activities, not abet it.

Indeed, even more wholesome entertainments of music and movies aren't any reason to make a federal case out of broadband. After all, is it really a vital national interest that people download movies from the Internet rather than go to Blockbuster? The current Internet already provides a ready alternative anyway - if you don't want to leave home you can go online to rent your DVD from a place like - NetFlix, which let's you get your DVDs home delivered and avoid late fees for a monthly fee of $19.95. Or if you like big screen entertainment but don't want to wait in line for your tickets to Lord of the Rings, you can go on online to Fandango or some movie ticket e-tailer.

What people do in their own homes for the most part is really their own business. How they entertain themselves - as long as they aren't hurting anybody else in the process - isn't government's concern.

As Mehlman noted, "Government cannot meaningfully drive broadband adoption and usage. It will take new applications to entice consumers and businesses, and new technologies to make broadband more appealing. The most important work must be done by the technologists, engineers and entrepreneurs."

So what is the government's interest? The federal interest in broadband is its potential for spurring economic growth. In that regard the information superhighway, as the Internet was dubbed a decade ago, is a lot like the federal highway system. The government didn't build it as a fast track for malls, or for easing commutes for boaters, but as a tool of military mobility and commerce. The system improved security and productivity.

Broadband has similar potential. As Karen Kornbluh of the New America Institute has written, big business has taken advantage of broadband networking to increase its productivity, but few small and medium sized businesses have taken that step. If they can, then the floor may be set for another round of economic growth like that in the 1990s.

The adoption of broadband by homes may help further that growth, but it is broadband's application to business productivity in which government has a legitimate concern - not broadband as a home entertainment alternative.

And the government's key concern in that regard isn't what killer application will sell broadband to homes and businesses but what can kill competition in communications that spurs both innovation and productivity growth.

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