Monday, 12 January 2015

Killer Gigabit Apps - and why 1,259 experts are wrong

Sandy Lindsay, Master of Balliol College Oxford (1924-49), was once locked in debate with the fellows (professors) at the college on a contentious issue. It came to a final vote, in which the fellows, to a man, voted against the Master. He scowled around the room, saying “Gentlemen, we appear to have reached an impasse.”

In this post I’m going to take a similarly hubristic approach, by disagreeing with 1,259 experts. The 1,259 experts are cited in a recent report from the Pew Research Center, Killer Apps in the Gigabit Age. The Pew Research Center is a US non-partisan body which publishes much valuable material on media and the internet (among other topics). I’ve frequently cited their work. This report too is full interesting ideas – my main problem with it is its title, for reasons I’ll come on to.

For the report Pew took responses from 1,464 experts, of whom 1,259 said they believed major new applications would capitalise on a significant rise in US bandwidth in the years ahead – the Gigabit Age of the title.

Pew also asked the experts what those applications might be – and here’s where it gets interesting. The experts had many many responses – Pew needs almost 50 pages just to summarise them. But almost none of the proposed applications need gigabit speeds or anything like it.

To take one example, telepresence is a recurring theme in the responses. This may or may not become widespread in the future -but the key point is that it does not require a gigabit. Even professional telepresence systems with a screen down the middle of the conference table seating six at your end and another six in Timbuktoo (or wherever your counterparts are) require just 18 Mbps according to Cisco and Polycom, who make such systems. So if you decide to chop your dining table in two and install multiple hi-def screens so you can have permanent telepresence with your Auntie Ethel, bandwidth will be the least of your worries.

Virtual reality is also oft mentioned in Pew's report. Oculus Rift is the closest we have to usable VR. It's in advance prototype stage, and is already impressive. The official verdict of this 90-year-old tester (having a vitual  tour of Tuscany) is 'holy mackerel!'

I haven't been able to track down official views on the bandwidth required for Oculus Rift, but the displays are 1,000 x 1,000 pixels per eye. In combination that's about a quarter of the resolution of a 4K TV (with similar frame rates). Given that 4K requires 16 Mbps, this suggests that VR may actually be a relatively low bandwidth application.

Some of the experts mentioned holographic displays.Bandwidth for these? Who knows. We'll put them in the 'maybe' category.

A number of the experts mentioned e-health, including monitoring vital signs, remote consultation and so one. Again, these are not high speed apps – they require kilobits or a few megabits at most. Several of the respondents cited that old chestnut, remote surgery. Does anyone seriously think this is enabled by improved home bandwidth?

Wearable computing, the internet of things, life logging and a wide array of other possibilities were mentioned in the report – but again, there is no reason to expect these to need gigabit speeds or anything like it.

So the real story here is not that there's a cornucopia of apps that require gigabits. Rather it is a respected research institute could ask over a thousand experts, and still not find a single clear case of an application requiring gigabit speeds. Change the title to 'Lack of Killer Apps for a Gigabit Age', and the Pew report is spot on.


  1. You make a good point that no single App needs that much bandwidth. I think the point you're missing is that it will be a rare user case where only one App is running at a time. For a business running teleprence in the boardroom plus meeting rooms 1a to 9z and the worker bees syncing to Dropbox and downloading raw asset files suddenly a gigabit isn't enough. At home, while Dad is watching the live sports feed in 4K and mum is checking the smart meters, little Jimmy is torrenting 5 bluray ISOs and playing COD: The War Never Ends in dual 8K and video Skyping with his girlfriend while syncing his 4 devices to the cloud and streaming Redtube.

    It's a spectacular failure of imagination to think a gigabit is too much. A decade ago no one thought we'd be maxing out ADSL2, what App needs 24Mbps? But here we are, struggling to meet today's bandwidth demands. With gigabit fibre optic FTTP it really is a case of build it and they will come. We don't know what Apps need that much bandwidth because we've never had that much to play with but give it time and I'm sure we'll find more than enough things to max that out too.

  2. Alan -

    Thanks very much for your comments. I absolutely agree that that it's app stacks that will drive peak demand, rather than any one app. Indeed, I've written 74-page report report analysing exactly this issue. Once you crunch the numbers, it turns out that very high app stacks of the type you describe are actually extremely rare events.

    While I know your example was toungue-in-cheek, I also think there's limited justification for government intervention to support torrenting, Redtube, online gaming and super-hi-def sports. If I want these things and am prepared to pay the full cost, that's one thing. But why should I expect the general tax-payer to subsidise me?

    Finally, you say we're maxing out ADSL2. Some users certainly are - but the great majority are not. Ofcom's figures suggest that once an ADSL line passes 10 Mbps, extra bandwidth makes remarkably little difference to traffic, suggesting that speed is not actually acting as much of a constraint to usage at 10 Mbps+. Again, I recognise there will be some users for whom this is not true.

    Thanks again for commenting,


    1. Thanks Rob, appreciate your consider reply. From the Australian perspective we simply don't have the population size to make a ubiquitous FTTP network a viable proposition for a commercial provider and it is the ubiquity of the access network which is the key point. That FTTP is capable of gigabit plus access speeds and what if any Apps require such speeds is just hand waving. The reality is Australia desperately needs to upgrade our broadband infrastructure and it is simply ludicrous to waste billions of dollars building a patch work, mixed tech, woefully inadequate network that limits opportunity and stifles innovation.

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