I have a modest proposal for how to solve our broadband access and bandwidth problems. Okay, maybe not all of them, but at least two:
- The current inability of people in rural areas (with dialup access only) to download larger files in an efficient manner.
- The virtually non-existent problem of “bandwidth hogs” that consume so much data that they cause congestion in the networks (in most cases this is pure nonsense, but since Big Cable and Big Telco want so badly to sell you this lie, let’s follow them into their fantasy world for the moment and respond with a solution that does NOT involve usage caps or metered service).
Okay, let’s suppose you have a fictitious company, we’ll call it Bingleulu (because no real company could call themselves that!). And lets suppose this company could do two things:
- Acquire the equivalent of (initially) 12 television channels worth of bandwidth on repurposed TV frequencies nationwide, and
- Acquire the equivalent of (initially) 12 television channels worth of bandwidth on a communications satellite (either C or Ku band, but preferably Ku) that is visible from the entire United States (or at least most of it).
Now, this dozen-channel bandwidth would be used as one huge data pipe – let’s call it the Big Fat Pipe, or BFP for short. If your dial-up modem is like a slow faucet drip, and your cable modem connection is like a low-flow shower head, the BFP would be like an open fire hydrant. Data would be sent up to the satellite in one fat stream, then down to either individual users (mostly those in rural areas not near a terrestrial transmitter) and to the ground station towers that would retransmit the signal over the former TV airwaves. Why the dual coverage? Well, satellite is great for use in rural areas and other places where people might have issues receiving the terrestrial signals reliably, whereas the terrestrial stations would require less expensive receiving equipment and would be more suitable for mobile use, and use in locations where satellites aren’t visible due to heavy tree cover. Plus it gives you a bit of redundancy, since in time the terrestrial stations could be linked by a backup fiber optic link.
So now you have this giant firehose of data, as it were. Now, let’s say you decide to watch a video. You jump on your web browser, on your existing dial-up or broadband connection, or even your mobile phone (which would have a built in data receiver) and go to the Bingleulu site, and select your video. On the pages there’s also a small setting dropdown that says something to the effect of “Number of seconds I’m willing to wait”, and it defaults to 60 seconds, but you can set it to something shorter or longer – even much longer if you’re selecting a large file that you won’t be able to watch until later.
Now, here’s the magic part. The Bingleulu site looks at whether it has space available in the flood of data it’s sending out, and if possible it sends your file within your specified maximum wait time as part of the the big flood. It uses a smart algorithm to figure this out, taking into account things like your connection speed and type (dial-up and mobile users might get some preference), whether you’re on an ISP that caps your data usage, and a bunch of other things. One thing it takes into account is how likely it is that someone else will request the same file within your specified wait time, because one of the things this system attempts to do is send popular files (especially LARGE popular files) to many users at once.
So when you make the request, the video or file or whatever might come back to you the usual way, over your internet connection, and the smaller the file the more likely it is that it will come that way. But if there is space available – and assuming you give it long enough, there will be – the file will come back to you via the satellite or terrestrial transmitter system. In that case, your browser will be sent an ID tag of some kind (via your regular connection) and it will then know that it is to look for the data containing that tag on the satellite/terrestrial over-the-air system. If it misses any packets, it can request retransmission of just those packets, so that the entire file doesn’t have to be resent (and again, these could be sent either the normal way, or over the BFP of data sent through the airwaves, depending on which makes the most sense).
During times of congestion in the BFP, priority would be given to large files, files that have been requested by many people (you would try to fill as many requests as possible using the same data stream), and live streams (such as live audio or video programming, especially streams that many people are wanting to access simultaneously).
What do we accomplish with this scheme? Well, for one thing, we get a lot of the largest files off your ISP (so they have a lot more “breathing room” and don’t have to meter usage – and yes, I KNOW there’s no reason they have to do that anyway, but if they’re going to lie about it, this is one way to pull the rug out from under their lies). And if you have a dial-up connection or mobile broadband connection, where either slow speeds or congestion might be actual issues, this scheme at least gets you access to the large files you may want at something other than a snail’s pace (though at some times of day you may have to wait a while for the download to start, but once it does start you’ll have it quickly!).
Now, who would pay for this bandwidth? Well, in some countries they might choose to operate it as a public utility, but that likely wouldn’t fly given the political climate in the U.S. (by which I mean, those lousy obstructionist Republicans and “blue dog” Democrats that stand in the way of anything that might benefit the common person unless it gives one or more huge corporations a leg up… sorry, got carried away there). So that’s why I invented out mythical company, Bingleulu. Just saying, there are several companies that face the problem of potentially having a real difficult time getting their content out to you if the big ISP’s start metering service, and those companies (any one of them individually, or a consortium of two or more) could come up with a solution.
What would you need to make this work? Well, for starters, an extension to the HTML protocol, or some mechanism so that when you make a request, you will always get some response via your primary Internet connection, but if you have access to the BFP, the response might be, in effect, “get it off the BFP by looking for packets tagged with this ID”, followed by an ID string. In a well-designed system it would even send an estimated time to the start of the download, if there will be a significant delay.
Also, you’d need a receiver for the BFP – initially this could take the form of a card that would go into your computer, or (more likely) a USB-connected receiver, or possibly even a receiver that sits on your local network and can service several computers in your home or small business (something akin to a HDHomeRun® type device). The receiver should have connections for both a satellite dish LNB, and a regular TV antenna. Note that initially, a company that wants to do this could implement half of this system (the satellite half) just by designing the system and then leasing bandwidth on a Ku-band satellite (Ku usually requires dishes of about two feet up to one meter in diameter for reliable reception, but I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of unused space on Ku-band satellites these days), then wait and see if the FCC will allow them to obtain the bandwidth in the broadcast spectrum.
Some additional things to consider:
First, it’s very likely that sooner or later there would be more than one BFP. This might be because “spot beams” would be used to increase capacity, or simply because you’d need additional satellites to cover other parts of the world (such as Hawaii and Guam) if this catches on. So when the system is designed, it need to have some way to know which satellite feed or terrestrial transmitter the receiver is receiving, and if there is more than one BFP, to return the requested data on the correct one.
Second, there may be special considerations for certain types of broadband connections. For example, what if the requester is using another type of satellite provider (WildBlue, HughesNet, etc.)? Do you try to avoid sending the request back that way (because it might trip a usage cap) or do you treat it like a normal broadband connection (where smaller, less popular, and “immediate gratification wanted” files would sometimes be sent back through the normal connection)?
Third, once we get into the area of live streams, those can eat bandwidth quickly (particularly high-definition quality video streams!). Unless you have a LOT of bandwidth, you can only carry a certain number of those in real time, so how do you decide which ones? Do you compress them (and sacrifice quality) during times of congestion? One thing to note – unlike what happens with your cable company, if no one has requested a particular stream, it wouldn’t be sent. EVERYTHING sent on the BFP is sent in response to an actual request by at least one user.
Fourth, let’s suppose several broadcasters jump on this as a delivery mechanism and now, suddenly, you don’t have enough capacity, but then your satellite provider and/or the FCC manages to find you more bandwidth – but now nobody has receivers that will tune the new bandwidth. Should receivers be designed from the outset to be tunable over a much larger range than what’s actually used at the start of the service? Seems to me that any service like this should be designed from the get-go with the idea that more bandwidth will be needed, and possibly available, at some point in the future, and that receivers in particular should be electronically reconfigureable to tune any additional bandwidth that may become available. I might even suggest that it should be possible to connect a DiSEQc switch to the receiver, so that if the time ever comes that multiple satellites are used, it will be possible to switch between the satellites.
I’m just tossing this idea out there, to see if anyone else thinks it might be a good idea. With the economy as it is, there are several of the older-style Ku-band communications satellites that have a fair chunk of unused spectrum space available, and I can tell you from personal experience that in most places a two-foot dish will get you a very adequate signal, and a three-foot dish will get you excellent reception (at least for Free-To-Air television reception). As long as people don’t let idiot installers mount the dish on their roof (making it nearly impossible to use a broom to clean off the snow in the winter), a delivery system that uses now-vacant bandwidth on Ku-band satellites should be quite workable, and even affordable.
If you stop and think about it, the most efficient use of spectrum space would be if the entire broadcast radio and TV spectrum, and all of the satellites, transmitted nothing but the BFP data stream. Television networks and local stations would simply be data streams. The BFP could even be smart enough to send you the network TV stream when you are watching a network program (and that network stream would only need to be transmitted once, as a single data stream) but when it comes time to show local commercials, there would be other streams for those, and the beauty is that everything could be configured to use a minimum of bandwidth (hopefully NOT by reducing the quality of the received signal, though) – for example, if Burger King buys the first local commercial spot in “Heroes” in 20 local TV markets, that commercial would only need to be streamed once and your receiver would be smart enough to know that you are supposed to get that commercial, even though people in other markets would be getting different streams. The advantage to viewers would be that you’d be getting the original data stream in full high definition direct from the network – no sub-optimal signals because your local station has crappy transmitting equipment, or is trying to cram three or four stations into one digital television signal.
Who would hate this idea? The National Association of Buggywhip… er, I mean, the National Association of Broadcasters, who would be just fine with keeping the status quo (and in protecting local stations that in many cases don’t deserve it, particularly when they superimpose their damn useless weather radar graphics and similar useless crap over a network show!). But if one of the big players really turned their most talented and creative people loose with this idea, it could totally change the way we distribute data in this country – and, as I say, pull the rug out from under those greedy bastards that want to start metering your data usage and charging you extra if they think you’re a “bandwidth hog” (here’s a great funny rebuttal to those morons, but don’t click there if you’re uptight about profanity).