Gilder sees global "bandwidth economy" over fiber

Gilder sees global "bandwidth economy" over fiber

PAUL PALUMBO

A coming global "bandwidth economy," as designated by technology visionary and convergence expert George Gilder, may supersede today`s information revolution made possible by the widespread availability of the microprocessor. Gilder sees this future economy becoming stronger in direct proportion to the continued deployment and greater use of fiber-optic plant. However, he cautions that the last mile to the home will likely remain a challenge even in the new economy.

Gilder, an editor, author of Microcosm and a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, in Seattle, was keynote speaker at @d Tech 96. In his talk, "The Convergence of Technology," he asserted that this future bandwidth economy will be driven by fiber networks empowering businesses and consumers "with opportunities to make the most meaningful change in their lives since the creation of interchangeable parts.

"Deployment of all-fiber networks means that a new bandwidth abundance overthrows the entire communications structure," he said. The promise of fiber-optic networks is that information can be digitized, thus becoming "ones and zeros," and traveling from points of origination to points of destination unrestricted by today`s electronic bottleneck and transport channels.

Moreover, Gilder referred to a "bandwidth scandal" put forward by telephone companies, which have deployed 25 million miles of fiber in the United States--adding another 4000 miles each day--but have not used it. Gilder said the dark secret about fiber is that "about half of it remains dark or underutilized," and therefore remains a vast untapped potential.

"There is no spectrum scarcity in fiber electronics," Gilder said. "The real power of every fiber thread is 1000 times all the frequencies used in the air." He mentioned that much of the fiber that is illuminated is restricted by the use of amplifiers operating at 2.5 Gbits/sec.

In his remarks, the technologist observed that the world economy is governed by two key measurements: the speed of light and the span of life. As a result, he said, "there is a new scarcity and a new abundance." The pressure of scarcity falls on one resource, according to Gilder, and that is time. "Everything else," he went on, "is becoming more abundant."

However, that won`t happen without casualties, if Gilder is correct. And it may be equivalent to living in a world that has gone off its rails. He said that "TV is dying as surely as any other older and obsolete technology like the buggy whip and the vacuum tube."

To illustrate this point, Gilder observed that while television is an enormously powerful medium, it has a fatal flaw: it cannot "target" viewers by narrowcasting advertising and programming. The opportunity, he said, "is to replace TV." Gilder`s main complaint about television is that network intelligence is fortressed at the point of origin and controlled by master programmers, not at the point of destination and consumption. "In TV, the customer remains a puppet," he quipped.

He predicted that television will become increasingly irrelevant to the fastest-growing markets, such as the Internet, because new growth areas may be enabled by fiber networks and exploited by so-called distributed computing devices, such as smaller personal computers that are ubiquitous. "There no longer will be a few transmitters, but as many transmitters as receivers," Gilder said.

The upshot, he theorized, is that a person on the World Wide Web commands more power than a broadcast tycoon, and computer workstation operators have more resources than factory managers. "The new model," he said, "is shifting power out of companies and to customers, and this is the main message of the Internet."

As that change occurs, Gilder expects the central processing unit (CPU) will become peripheral to the network. Even though many computers are interconnected via electronic communities, the CPU remains dominant to the network today because most of the available bandwidth is still housed in a box. Markets undergoing this level of change defy much of the old logic, but companies run the risk of total obsolescence by not participating.

Evolution of power

Gilder believes that the network will similarly go through an evolution of power and strength that was enjoyed by the computer and microprocessor. There have been 32 doublings of processor power from the development of the computer after World War II through 1994. He expects the same doubling of network bandwidth, defined today as the Internet, as time goes on.

In fact, fiber network developments are moving even more rapidly, with Synchronous Optical Network moving forward from OC-48 speeds of 2.5 Gbits/sec to OC-192 speeds of 10 Gbits/sec.

In the face of these changes, the personal computer in its present form is not expected to dominate the bandwidth economy as it did when isolated on the desktop, according to Gilder. He said, "Because of the constant need for maintenance and upgrading, microprocessors cannot prevail in the bandwidth economy." He does not foresee personal computers being replaced, but rather profoundly influenced by the change in industry focus to networked solutions.

Gilder also warned about excessive government regulation and interference. "If you are master of an exponential technology, then keep an eye on the emperor," he said. "Emperors like to decapitate masters of exponential technology." He suggested that the electromagnetic spectrum is finite only because of regulation. "If governments regulated sand like they do spectrum, the world would soon run out of silica."

The technologist also had advice for Bill Gates of Microsoft. Gilder suggested that Gates was wrong to try and work with TV to establish a broadcasting model of programming for the Web: "By trying to solve the problems of TV, you will absorb the problems of TV."

Gilder said that the network, i.gif., the Internet, as a medium must move beyond current models and seek opportunities, such as participating in projects that are testbeds for understanding how to deal with empowered consumers. q

Paul Palumbo writes from Seaside, CA.

About the Speaker

George Gilder is a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a nonprofit research organization that examines public policy issues. He is also author of 10 books and a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and several electronic business publications. His major book, Microcosm, explains the quantum roots of the electronic and communications technologies.

In this book, Gilder maintains that the law of microcosm requires decentralization of both business and government, in data processing, manufacturing, telecommunications and even defense. Long expected to favor large capital-intensive bureaucracies, the new technology, in fact, impels a global revival of entrepreneurship.

Gilder writes that the new technology will transform not only the office and factory, but also consumer electronics as the new computers make television, including high-definition television and "interactive" television, obsolete. Television is a centralized analog technology in a world of increasingly digital and decentralized systems, says Gilder.

More in Transport