In 1876 William Preece, chief engineer of the British Post Office said, “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” While this seems ludicrous to us in the 21st century, there is a long history in technology and beyond of authorities failing to recognise the obvious potential of what’s in front of them. While William Preece’s comments were 140 years ago, this reluctance to move with the times is still obvious in communications.
Over the years, we’ve seen internet speeds increase exponentially. For many of us in the 1990s, a 56 kb/s connection seemed perfectly normal. When broadband appeared, we thought nothing would compare to 256 kb/s. Now, with connection speeds measured in Mb/s, we have online services of a quality that was unimaginable twenty years ago. Yet at each stage, there has been the same blasé attitude: that what we have now is “good enough.”
The fact is, in communications, what we have now will never be “good enough” for long. Just as the idea of messenger boys or, more romantically, the Pony Express, was swiftly made obsolete by the telegraph and telephone in the 19th century, the services we have now are already being eclipsed by the demands of both business and consumer internet users. Quite simply, if we see a pipe, we’ll fill it.
For instance, home users have gone from downloading grainy videos, to YouTube shorts, to full length movies in HD on Netflix. Looking ahead, high-definition gaming together with 8K video and beyond mean the appetite for more capacity, greater bandwidth and higher speed will always be with us. At the same time, users don’t just want higher capacity; they want it in more places, with the promise of a similar experience to at-home broadband whether they are on the road or even in the air.
The way in which these changes in demand can affect communication strategies is being explicitly demonstrated by the UK Government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme. Originally designed to deliver speeds of 24 Mb/s to the whole of the UK, the Government then announced that these speeds would only be guaranteed to 95 percent of the population. The remaining five percent would have to settle for a Universal Service Obligation (USO) of 10 Mb/s. The backlash has been immediate, both from the population affected – such as the vast majority of the UK’s farmers – and from those who believe that while 10 Mb/s may appear substantial now, it will not stay that way for long. Indeed, there was a proposal to increase the minimum required speed under the USO to 30 Mbps, but this was scrapped when the Digital Economy Bill was passed.
Investors in Technology
The BDUK experience is a prime example of how a technological approach that only looks at what is “good enough” can cause problems down the line. The UK superfast roll-out has been entirely fixated on fibre broadband, with the result that many premises could have been served much more cost-effectively by other means. Yet when we look at other technologies, we can see the same approach in action. Take satellite as an example. The long-held stereotype has been that, while satellite can reach anywhere at any time, both the infrastructure and the service are expensive, and provide limited capacity. As a result, the majority of uses for satellite don’t break with this convention. For instance, as a back-up, or option of last resort to reach people in remote areas; as an emergency measure to ensure basic services are restored in the wake of a disaster; or as a means to provide good-but-not-great services to individuals on the move, for example air passengers. For instance, in the UK’s superfast broadband roll-out, satellite would be seen as a way to provide the 10Mb/s USO in remote areas, but no more.
However, satellite has proven it is far more capable than these increasingly outdated stereotypes. Residential satellite broadband services already offer comparable speeds and capacity to fixed-line services, at a similar cost. In fact today, in some markets throughout Europe, residential satellite broadband packages are offered at 50 Mbps. Similarly, satellite technology is always advancing; satellites already have capacity in the hundreds of Gb/s, and in a few years this will increase to thousands. What this means is that organisations should not be looking to satellite to provide what is “good enough” for now, but instead to anticipate and meet future broadband needs. By acting as the natural extension to a nationwide superfast broadband roll-out; or allowing passengers on aircraft to not only email and stream short videos, but perform any action they would at home.
We need to learn from the example of William Preece. Whether technology providers, customers or consumers, nobody wants hindsight to prove them the equivalent of Decca Records turning down the Beatles because “guitar groups are on the way out.” The communications industry cannot settle for what is “good enough” now. Instead, it is crucial to keep pushing against the boundaries of satellite and other technologies to ensure that, no matter how fast and in what direction consumer and business demands grow, the industry is always ahead of them.