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Commentary: Cities need bandwidth

The so-called glut of bandwidth is so overblown that it nearly qualifies as an urban legend.

    By John Mazur, Gartner Analyst

    The so-called glut of bandwidth is so overblown that it nearly qualifies as an urban legend.

    In fact, most areas fall far short of having adequate bandwidth for their needs--especially "last mile" connectivity to businesses--and nowhere is this shortfall more critical, or more damaging, than in America's urban areas and suburban business parks.

    This shortfall is partly the result of an actual shortage of fiber-optic cable; service providers commonly bury hundreds, even thousands, of unused "dark" fibers for future use when they install new backbone routes. This practice--encouraged by local governments, which don't want their roadways torn up every few years--has meant a genuine lack of cable for the last-mile customers. Suppliers such as Corning and Lucent Technologies have reported two-year waiting lists for fiber--at a time when networks supposedly had far more capacity than they needed.

    The reality is that, while the major backbone routes are awash in fiber that they won't use for years to come, the last mile is desperate for optical connectivity--and isn't getting it. Enormous capital investment in optical networking technologies has resulted in a new generation of "metro area" SONET (Synchronous Optical Network), Optical Ethernet and wave division multiplexing equipment capable of rapidly provisioning raw optical capacity or services to urban business and suburban business parks. The standard adoption cycle for public telecommunications technology has been cut in half, and the result is likely to be the deployment of faster, cheaper, more functional equipment--if the necessary last-mile fiber is in place.

    Gartner predicts high growth rates for these next-generation optical networking products, but also believes that the market will be limited dramatically by the unavailability of fiber to customers. In fact, Gartner research shows that in many areas enterprises will soon be divided into the optical "haves" and "have nots"--and that the absence of optical connectivity will be a severe limiting factor for enterprises.

    There is light at the end of the fiber-optic tunnel, however--at least in some areas. New York City--one of the most difficult places in the country to undertake any major infrastructure change--has shown that an urban area determined to meet the need of local businesses for last-mile fiber connectivity can do so. In 2000, the city offered its retired water mains to service providers that want to provide fiber-optic connectivity. Just last week, the competitive service provider Yipes Communications, taking advantage of New York's procompetition environment, announced that it would bring its optical IP service offering to the city.

    See news story:
    Cities: "Bring us your bandwidth"
    Another urban center is using similarly creative approaches to the fiber-optic problem. Robots are being used to install cable in the metro area sewer mains. Ultimately, municipal conduit systems--"empty pipes"--may prove to be the most cost-effective way to string both fiber-optic cable and electrical utilities' lines, and auctions could net billions of dollars to be used in constructing and maintaining those systems.

    Gartner believes that the industry is at the dawn of a new age of abundant bandwidth that we call the Infocosm. The last-mile optical bottleneck--especially in America's cities--is a major obstacle to reaping the benefits of that era, which is rich in information and communications. It will take creative solutions, massive investment and sound decisions by business and government leaders to open up that bottleneck.

    A good start would be laying to rest, once and for all, the myth of the bandwidth glut.

    (For related commentary on fiber-optic communications, see TechRepublic.com--free registration required.)

    Entire contents, Copyright ? 2001 Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.