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Wideband Cable Modems and the Alpha Centauri Paradox

By Shelly Palmer (bio), Managing Director, Advanced Media Ventures Group, LLC

Earlier this week, I was speaking at a private seminar that Naked Communications put together for executives at NBC/Uni's Sci Fi Channel. I covered many of my favorite topics: online video, the potential impact of peer-assisted streaming mesh networks, mobile advertising, social media, etc. The goal of the speech was to help the audience understand how to think about the future, rather than to predict it.

Towards the end of my speech, I asked the following question: "If we wanted to travel to Alpha Centauri (the nearest star system to the Earth) when should we start the project?"

Located a mere 24 trillion miles from downtown Manhattan, Proxima Centauri, the dimmest orb in the Alpha Centauri star system, is actually the nearest star to our solar system. It takes light, which travels at 186,200 miles per second, 4.22 years to make the trip.

Now, the Voyager spacecraft is generally considered to be the fastest man-made object traveling in space; traveling at a blistering 38,000 miles per hour.

So, if it was pointed at Proxima Centauri (which it is not) it would take Voyager approximately 73,000 years to get there.

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Let's think about project management for a moment. Most of the technology we need for this journey does not yet exist. My rocket scientist friends estimate that it will take mankind approximately 1,000 years to build the ship. Inside that 1,000 year time-frame, let's assume that technological advances allow us to travel four times faster than Voyager's top speed. If we start today, we could reasonably expect to arrive at Proxima Centauri in about 20,000 years.

However, if we wait 10,000 years to start the project, technological advances might allow us a four-fold increase in speed for each 1,000 years we wait which would reduce travel time to about 2,000 years.

Which brings us to the Alpha Centauri paradox. If we start the project today, it will take us approximately 20,000 years to get to Proxima Centauri, but if we wait 10,000 years to start the project, the whole trip will take about 12,000 years.

Yes, in the race to the nearest star, waiting 10,000 years to start will get you there 8,000 years ahead of the people who start building technology today. Would you wait?

At The Cable Show '07, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts personally demonstrated the next generation of ultra-fast, wideband cable modems. The technology is about 25 times faster that current cable modems.

For the geeks in the audience, we're talking about a 150 Mbps broadband connection. For normal people, just imagine downloading a movie or television show file from the Apple iTunes store. Using a current technology cable modem, a typical 300 MB file takes about 15 minutes to download. The new DOCSIS 3.0 modems will download the same file in 15 seconds.

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We are well out of the "if" phase of the business and totally immersed in the "how to" phase. So how should we be thinking about incremental technological improvement and its sociological impact?

Let's think about what businesses might benefit from blindingly fast, fixed, wired, broadband connections. Movie downloads are obvious. Does this mean that there is a day and date release model in the near term? Actually, it is neither closer nor farther away. The only thing preventing day and date release of new theatrical motion pictures are the business rules associated with the traditional model. Comcast will most likely make this type of content available over traditional VOD or PPV as soon as they get the deal done. Technological advances won't impact it at all.

OK, what about older movies and movie libraries? Certainly a faster broadband connection would help those businesses, right? Yes, faster is better, but movie files are pretty big and there's really no way to casually manage large media files and move them around the house. A super-fast broadband connection is only a very small part of the value proposition of the download-to-own video content business.

How about good old fashioned browsing? Nope, that's not going to feel much faster unless users upgrade their video cards and Ethernet cards. Not much value there.

What about over-the-top, cable-bypass, consumer file sharing and peer-assisted streaming mesh networks? Spot on! A big pipe into your house will allow you to enjoy lots of streaming content. With a very fast broadband connection applications like VoIP and IPTV and alarm-system monitoring can all work simultaneously. More bandwidth, more applications — more applications, more productivity.

So when should we start building business units to take advantage of superiorly fast cable modems? Now would be a good time. Two years ago (about 10,000 years in Internet time), it would have taken millions of dollars and thousands of programming hours to create a rich media-enabled website with social networking tools. Now, you can practically create one with open source code. And, even if you need to build out your concept with enterprise grade commercial software, it will cost you a fraction of what it cost two years ago and take far less time to accomplish.

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If you start building your new business unit now you are very likely to achieve critical mass before older, more established companies with existing and legacy infrastructure get to market. That's the Alpha Centauri paradox. They started years ago but you can start now and beat them to profitability. Just don't start a project to get you to Proxima Centauri, for that you'll have to wait.

About the Author: Shelly Palmer is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group LLC and the author of Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV (2006, Focal Press). Shelly is also the 1st vice president of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, NY and Chairman of the Advanced Media Committee of the Emmy Awards. You can read Shelly's blog at http://www.emmyadvancedmedia.com. Shelly can be reached at shelly@palmer.net.

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