I recently blogged in favor of net neutrality. To be clear, I don’t think regulation is the answer. In fact, I believe regulation is as much the problem as greedy broadband providers; but I’m against the notion that cable operators charge additionally for content that doesn’t originate on their network. Pick your poison.
Just when you think you might understand this net neutrality issue, and be honest, you don’t, not really; a story comes out the other day about content providers actually lobbying the broadband providers for guaranteed bandwidth. The exact same thing, only the content providers are requesting this rather than the broadband providers forcing it on them. Hmm. Net neutrality was designed to protect content providers from having to pay extra, but apparently some want to. And make no mistake, these are content providers with deep pockets. Sony. HBO. Showtime. Note, they are also traditional TV content providers and not a Facebook or YouTube.
Clearly, some trend is underway to explain this. It’s easy enough to assume these content producers are positioning themselves for the eventual transition of content delivery to the Internet. That seems to be what’s behind all these related stories. Marshall McLuhan professed that all new media are destined to subsume and extend all old media, and to use the old media as their content. I’m fairly certain that if I understand what Marshall meant by this, then it would explain this transition of broadcast television to the Internet. Not that I feel any dumber than the media companies. They’ve been positioning themselves for decades with cable companies acquiring content companies and content companies merging with cable companies. And then they split up. I don’t think they have a clue how this will play out either.
But that’s their problem. I thought I would provide some details here to help explain just how certain content could be expedited by your provider. The original plan by the cable companies was to regulate the flow of Internet traffic. They can do this by tagging the data packets as they flow through their network switching equipment and assigning more or less bandwidth to the data session. I don’t know if they do this by leveraging the Quality of Service field of bits in the IP header, but there is an actual QoS field in IP headers, as well as in other transmission protocols, that can be modified for this purpose. This is how VLANs and MPLS work, if you’re familiar with those transmission protocols. They know the source and destination of each packet and they tag them to control their flow. But the recent net neutrality regulations nixed that plan.
The story I linked above is about a proposal to provide media outlets whom are willing to pay, essentially a TV channel. It would be a data service, Internet traffic rather than television signals, but carved out of a separate slice of bandwidth on the cable. They term this capability a “managed service”. It’s not clear yet if the regulators will allow it. Nor is it clear the cable providers care to offer it. But just how is this different?
A friend recently asked me to define broadband. It’s worth understanding. The term has a very specific meaning to network engineers; but about the time dial up was giving way to DSL and cable, network marketers co-opted the term to simply mean fast. It didn’t help that the FCC further diluted the term by defining it as a specific data rate. 2 or 4 Mbps initially. Just recently the FCC redefined it to mean 25 Mbps or faster. They do this to regulate the providers to be more innovative; prompting their national deployment of faster speeds because regulated companies aren’t thought to be innovative. That sentence made sense in my head, not sure it actually does now that I wrote it. Regardless, I can assure you that speed does not define broadband. Broadband is the transmission of multiple signals on a single medium.
Think of how your radio works. Or broadcast TV. Without detailing the entire electromagnetic spectrum, understand that FM radio and broadcast television operate in a frequency range from 30 to 300 MHz. You might listen to radio station 93.7. That’s a signal transmitted at 93.7 Mhz. The allotted frequency would be somewhat bigger, perhaps from 93.6 to 93.8 – I don’t actually know, but a frequency range is provided to carry the signal. In the open air, this is not considered broadband. Multiplexing multiple channels onto a single wire would be broadband, and this is what cable providers do. You de-multiplex the signals with a tuner or remote. It might help to think of the opposite of broadband. There is a term called narrowband, but in this context the opposite technology is called baseband. That is what ethernet is. A single medium with a single channel. Sort of. 10Base T on cat 5 cable is 10 Mbps of bandwidth operating over 2 twisted pairs of wire in a 4 pair configuration in full duplex mode. 1000BaseT (1 Gbps) uses all four wire pairs. This gets complicated but those 8 wires are considered a single medium and transport a single channel. Take from this that if you have 5 computers in your house on ethernet, they each take turns to communicate. Very fast turns, but they are sharing a single channel, and the more computers running on that ethernet, the slower your potential speed.
Broadband transmits multiple signals, or channels, on a single medium. It generally consists of a different type of wire, coax rather than twisted pair (telephone wire). While technology continues to increase the capacity of cable types, specific medium will always be superior in terms of potential bandwidth. Ethernet over telephone wire doubled its use of wires from 4 (2 pair) to 8 (4 pair) as it increased its data rate from 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps to 1000 Mbps. There is even a 10 Gbps version now. Coax has also advanced, but switching to fiber to the home is what will be the medium of choice for gigabit data speeds.
Sony, HBO and Showtime are proposing their television channels be transmitted as data. TV signals are mostly already transmitted as digital. The difference is packaging them within the IP protocol, as all Internet traffic is transmitted. Then you won’t need a TV tuner, simply your computer. The point is that televisions are going away. As analog gave way to digital, TVs will be vanquished by computer monitors or TV tuners replaced by computers, because their transmission methods are coalescing.
I took liberties with some of my technical explanations here so I wouldn’t copy paste this into any school essays, but hope this helps as a primer for understanding the very near future. And by the way, Marshall McLuhan has some great quotes. “The medium is the message.” “Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America, not on the battlefields of Vietnam.” And, unrelated to media but a good one, “There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew.” Good guy to read up on.