Accepted wisdom dictates that the eventual ubiquity of ultra high-speed (100Mbps+) broadband access will herald a new era in innovation with communications services that were previously impossible. But if you didn’t build it, would innovation still come?

For this edition of ‘Hang Ups’ we ask: “Does a lack of bandwidth constrain innovation?”

In the debate chairs for this topic are Diane Myers, Directing Analyst, Service Provider VoIP & IMS, at Infonetics Research, and Metaswitch’s VP of Product Marketing, Brian Searl.

Brian Searl

The last couple of decades have programmed subscribers to understand why they need to pay more for better infrastructure. “Why should I get cable TV?” There will be more channels. “What’s with this 3G thing?” You will be able to get more…stuff?

Before we get deep into this debate, let’s make sure we understand that fat pipes in themselves will absolutely drive innovation. Whether we are talking processor speed, local PC storage, or Internet pipes to the home, as soon as there is more capacity, someone clever thinks of an interesting way to fill it. Increasingly popular video streaming services like Netflix are creating exceptional demand for more bandwidth, but it will take time to roll out enough capacity to meet that demand.

But I’m not convinced that innovation will just stand still and wait for the pipes. More likely it will happen regardless, and just fill in the gaps of current availability.

Diane Myers

Finding the answer to this debate question does depend on what you mean by ‘innovation’. There are clear pathways to greater services revenue when service providers harness the full potential of the bandwidth available. However, if the emergence of social media has taught us anything, it’s that you don’t need a lot of bandwidth to develop engaging applications and services.

Video streaming is a major bandwidth hog that attracts a lot of subscriber revenues, but what’s especially innovative about throwing large content at the network?

The fact is that innovation in communication today is happening at an extreme rate, far ahead of bandwidth. People are coming up with the ideas, then figuring out how to shoehorn them into the available space. Video telephony is a good example. Facetime, Skype, Fring and Yahoo Messenger are all leading the race toward two-way video, despite the absence of the bandwidth levels and QoS needed to make the experience totally satisfying. It will be very interesting to see how these can be monetized as they become steadily more mature.

Brian Searl

Video needs as much bandwidth as it can get, in order to generate the quality that could attract and sustain premium service costs. Today, video services are still commonly low-resolution and quite choppy, yet this doesn’t seem to dissuade subscribers. We saw much the same when cellular services were first introduced. Indeed, even now, people’s expectations for cellular calls still aren’t quite ‘toll-quality’. These same subscribers will accept less than perfect video for some time; then yell for more bandwidth to improve it.

Demand for video is accelerating the arrival of a ubiquitous, high-bandwidth access environment where innovation can arise from any quarter to take advantage of it.

Diane Myers

SMS is another good history lesson. Now there’s a service that could barely use any less bandwidth, yet for a couple of years the usage levels were enormous, and still continue today. Similarly Twitter is a good example of a service that embraces the bandwidth limitations that would ordinarily threaten its own pervasiveness. In fact it even constrains its own users’ capacity to communicate, via the 140 character limit. None of this has prevented the corresponding tide of innovation from application developers and service providers to paint upon the canvas that Twitter has created.

As yet of course, Twitter isn’t much of business model, at least not for itself. Revenue generating services need to present a proposition whereby subscribers know what extras they are paying for. However this doesn’t always necessitate more bandwidth, particularly if innovation is targeted at the intuitiveness of the user interface. Apple, for example, represents extraordinary commercial success largely through the popularity of its interface design.

Brian Searl

The Twitter example shows how innovators respond when you give them constraints. They love a challenge! And here again with Twitter you see the value of the interface. Developers have poured innovation into the usability and control of various competing cross platform interfaces and monitoring systems in particular. Most are free of course, but all ultimately drive more traffic onto the networks of service providers.

‘No fat pipes = no innovation’ doesn’t stand up as much of a defense for why a service provider isn’t driving forward and trying to push the envelope. Bandwidth increases beget new innovation. New innovation is, in turn, driving more bandwidth.

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