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.