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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Global broadband

I received an email this morning with a link to this article. There's nothing new or especially interesting in it, but it happened to intersect with some other, related ideas I've been pondering. There is a very wide gap between reality and perception of broadband penetration (the handful of comments under the linked article gives some flavor).

The reason for the disparity is, in part, found in this map. More evidence is here. The story these maps tell is of the business challenges to broadband in the US that are far less severe in other countries, if they exist at all: the physical geography, population distribution, and national or language barriers. The central concept here is demand locality, or how closely geographic locality matches traffic locality. More demand locality means easier deployment of faster and faster services.

Most countries with similar uniformity of language and culture are much smaller than the US and have many fewer population centers. Physical proximity and language/geographic barriers in such countries drive demand locality up and drive infrastructure costs down.

In the US we have dozens of high-density population centers spread across thousands of miles. Despite its wide variety of cultures and languages, the US is dominated by native English speakers who speak no other languages. This implies very high connectivity demands between widely dispersed points in the country. Demand locality is low, so infrastructure costs are high. Not surprisingly, the US has an average broadband speed of 1.9Mb/s.

South Korea is a great example of the rest of the world because it is geographically small, has one major population center, and there are no other Korean speaking countries with network infrastructure. Most sites of interest to South Koreans are inside South Korea, so most traffic in South Korea stays in South Korea. Delivering broadband to most of the population of South Korea means delivering it to Seoul and not worrying much about intra-country long-haul or inter-country connectivity. The result: average broadband speed in South Korea of 45Mb/s. Japan has similar advantages and averages 61Mb/s.

This seems to leave the US stuck in the broadband doldrums. Returning to the article at the top, no broadband initiative is going to change the demand locality. Changing the demand locality requires getting data and applications closer to users. That means building a lot of data centers and properly architecting applications to run in a lot of data centers spread far apart from each other. At that point, individual metro areas can be upgraded with extremely high-speed broadband without needing nearly as much long-haul capacity or worries about transcontinental latency.