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Starving in the Land of Plenty: The True Story of Consumer Bandwidth

By John Cioffi
Co-authored by Hatti Hamlin

Why is it that we’re surrounded by bandwidth – with a few gigabits per second going through our bodies at any one time between cell, Wi-Fi, and TV services – and yet we have trouble streaming an HD movie or watching the Super Bowl from our computers?

The reason is that our hot spots are white hot, but we can only access a fraction of the available bandwidth. Despite the long-running argument over net neutrality, what will really benefit consumers the most is “net vitality.” And Software Defined Networks (SDNs) will deliver that vitality, even as they upend the conventional telecoms/ ISPs and change the balance of power in providing consumer connectivity. As networks are transformed into giant computers, it will be easier to spontaneously provision a service for a specific application by grabbing bandwidth wherever it’s available.

In fact, the power is shifting to virtual network operators, who, if the network is open enough, will be able to instantaneously provide service based on the bandwidth and quality the user’s application requires. The problem has not been a lack of bandwidth, but a lack of access to the bandwidth around each of us. We’re starving in the land of plenty and SDNs will change that.

What does this mean for consumers?

  • Opportunities will expand for content and application providers (CAPs) as they leverage the virtualized and dynamic on-demand infrastructure offered by network providers.
  • That’s likely to also mean falling prices for bandwidth as network providers compete to have their services selected by the CAP players—who may grab bandwidth from many different sources to serve up content. Rather than settling for commodity status, there will be an opportunity for enterprising and agile network providers to use SDNs to deliver on fair terms the right bandwidth for the consumer-preferred applications to the CAP players.
  • Once consumers can use the available bandwidth all around them, the focus on network neutrality will give way to a focus on net vitality as bandwidth costs get packaged with application and content services—everything from entertainment (Netflix / Amazon), and video (You Tube), to work-from-home/small business services, wearable-oriented services such as health sensors, and many IoT applications. For example, using SDN, an Apple application could switch between AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint to provide seamless service for music and entertainment, because consumers care only about the quality and consistency of the service, not who delivers it. Because previously fenced-off bandwidth will be available through SDNs, speeds will increase as software fixes problems or switches among providers seamlessly. The entire Internet could and perhaps should be available to tap.

This emerging story makes the issue of net neutrality almost academic; net vitality, delivered with emerging SDN technology, is the future of broadband.