In Broadband, the Questions Not Asked Can Kill Ya

I tell people in my presentations and workshops that knowing the right questions to ask is often equally or more important than the answers you get. Or the corollary of this philosophy, the questions you don’t ask could doom your project.

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The ship Titantic’s front hull was built and fortified in answer to the question “what if we hit an iceberg head on?” But the ship’s demise came from no one apparently asking the question, “what if the ship sideswipes an iceberg?” Titantic’s bow could take a major hit and sustain damage in a way that probably wouldn’t have sunk her. But alas, the iceberg that did her in scraped the less durable side of the ship, slicing open four compartments that ultimately flooded and sunk the ship.

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A common question today from critics of communities’ desire for a gigabit network is, “who needs a gigabit?” A question driven logically but shortsightedly by the fact that very few applications exist that can move a gigabit per second.

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Unfortunately, the questions that don’t get asked enough are, “what if a couple hundred local businesses needed/wanted to concurrently run three or four business apps that constantly required 20 or 30 Mbps? What kind of network would support that much traffic, and more importantly what kind of local economic impact would result? I’d like to think that the answer to these questions would drive more communities to find ways to fund broadband. After all, Santa Clara, CA is supporting a stadium to bring the San Francisco 49ers to move there is now priced at $1.2 billion. Compared to a billion, what’s 10 or 15 measly million for a broadband network with great economic development potential?

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Kansas City just completed, and Chattanooga is currently running, a contest to give away big bucks to individuals, companies or groups of creative people who best answer the question, “what can you do with a gig?” Chattanooga adds a new dimension to the digital dash for cash by organizing what might be described as broadband summer camp where college students and entrepreneurs will tackle those un-asked questions mentioned above

Tuesday, March 20 is the deadline for applying to Chattanooga’s GigTank. With a gigabit network in place, the city’s idea is to convert the city into a giant test lab this summer in search of applications that help define how individuals, businesses and organizations benefit in three-to-five years from highspeed Internet access.

Apps created in the program don’t have to require a full gig to run, but Chattanooga is looking for bandwidth-intensive applications that clearly work best on powerful highspeed infrastructure. They’ll extrapolate the results from 20 teams pushing the envelope so they can better understand what happens when 60, 200, 300 companies, colleges and entrepreneurs are pushing that envelope. Communities can analyze these results and establish some infrastructure benchmarks for solutions that meet their respective needs.

If you have been pondering gigabit what-ifs and are feeling entrepreneurial, you might want to complete the paperwork for GigTank. The selection committee is looking for two types of applications: 1) new online or traditional software that capitalize on gigabit networks; and 2) apps that use a gigabit network to change how existing technology (e.g. video conferencing, database management, medical imaging) improves individuals and businesses.

Whether or not you throw in for a fun summer in Chattanooga, the main takeaway here is don’t get caught up debating who needs a gig. For one thing, at this moment in time, few are the individuals who can actually max out a gig network. But mainly, it’s a red herring of an argument that incumbents and their front organizations throw out there as they do everything possible to derail community broadband.

The vital question is, how do we address the businesses as a group that are serious about business, and running apps that are increasing in their bandwidth requirements. There are hospitals and medical facilities moving massive data files as more patient records, MRIs, doctor/patient videoconferences and other info move across IP networks. The list grows daily, it seems. What infrastructure is best suited for the sum total of these demands? How do we get that infrastructure given the financial and political challenges communities face?

What questions are in your broadband plan? What questions should be?

Don’t forget to check out details about my upcoming book about Chattanooga’s network.

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