Bandwidth Is Like Energy: It Should Be Used Efficiently

What I find most interesting about March 22nd's Washington Post piece about how much bandwidth the new iPad and its beautiful new apps consume is how it leaps to the conclusion that "the network is the problem." Actually, the challenge is two-fold: how can network innovators (wireline and wireless) keep up with huge and escalating demand (a good problem to have, because there are great growth opportunities for the network businesses here), and how can device and apps innovators be incentivized to be more bandwidth-efficient (an important incentive to have, because bandwidth costs more money and more energy, and doesn't just fall off of trees).

The people who build networks are innovating like mad to make more capacity available in more places. What cable has done with DOCSIS 3.0 -- bonding channels together as they recapture bandwidth that they are no longer required to dedicate to analog TV channels -- is nothing short of amazing, and they've jumped to the head of the pack in network speeds and capacity. The wireless industry is also innovating like crazy, reducing cell sizes, improving backhaul (moving traffic off of wireless onto wireline networks as quickly as possible), and, with the government's help, looking under every rock for more spectrum to support demand.

But bandwidth is a two-way street. In general, the people who make Internet-connected devices, and the people who develop apps, just don't stop to think about how much bandwidth they use. Actually, many of them probably do think about it -- but then they conclude, "Not my problem. Let the users and the network guys worry about that."

That kind of thinking cannot continue. The Internet is an ecosystem. Solutions -- whether to privacy, cybersecurity, piracy, or managing bandwidth -- require the active involvement and support of all key players in the ecosystem. This becomes more obvious every day.

We've seen some good examples of situations where device and apps providers build bandwidth efficiency into their designs, so from the get-go they are focused on providing quality products with efficiency in mind. Take Netflix. Responding to measures taken by ISPs in Canada to manage the volume of traffic on their networks, Netflix retooled its streaming app to offer customers three different levels of resolution, ranging from good-quality to top-quality, and all of them designed to use much less bandwidth than their predecessor.

As a consumer, I want the best-quality devices and apps I can buy. Part of the equation is how much of my bandwidth these devices and apps are going to eat up. I know that, one way or the other, I wind up paying for that bandwidth. It's time that consumers had better information about how much bandwidth their apps and devices consume -- just like we have good information about how our appliances and cars consume energy. And it's time for everyone in the Internet ecosystem to embrace bandwidth efficiency as a key element of design. Bandwidth is a resource like any other. Give us the option to use it wisely.