Do we need more bandwidth?

Sometimes it`s a good thing to examine your assumptions. That thought occurred to me recently as I was listening to still another presentation on getting more bandwidth out of the network. My question is: Do we really need all that bandwidth? If most enterprise networks today are successfully chugging along with 10-megabit-per-second Ethernet, why are companies putting in 100-megahertz "pipes," while cable and connector manufacturers strive to sell them 200- and 350-MHz systems, even before the

Sep 1st, 1999

Arlyn S. Powell, Jr.

Group Editorial Director

arlynp@pennwell.com

Sometimes it`s a good thing to examine your assumptions. That thought occurred to me recently as I was listening to still another presentation on getting more bandwidth out of the network. My question is: Do we really need all that bandwidth? If most enterprise networks today are successfully chugging along with 10-megabit-per-second Ethernet, why are companies putting in 100-megahertz "pipes," while cable and connector manufacturers strive to sell them 200- and 350-MHz systems, even before the relevant standards are published?

The easy answer is that "futureproofing" is marketing hype. But assuming that the need to futureproof the network is hype is just as dangerous as it is unfounded to blindly accept that need as being real. Instead, let`s look at some of the applications coming down the pike, determine their bandwidth demands, and then we can decide if there is really a need for more bandwidth in the network.

Most of my waking hours each workday are spent plugged into an enterprise network, sending and receiving electronic mail, often with large files attached to them. I don`t notice much delay in doing my work with one notable exception: when I`m researching stories on the Internet.

Most of us who have used the Internet, either at home or work, have been frustrated by the maddening slowness with which files are uploaded and downloaded. However, you might argue, this is a problem with the public-network pipe running to your home or business, not the size of the pipe leading to your desktop. That argument is essentially correct, although you could counter-argue that, if everyone in a company had full-speed access to the Internet, the corporate network might get pretty cluttered pretty fast.

Putting the whole Internet problem aside, what are some of the forthcoming business applications that could potentially clog up the enterprise network? Here are a few to think about:

Faxing--We all take faxing as a business activity pretty much for granted, forgetting how slow and cumbersome the process is. The next generation of fax equipment, however, generically known as Group 4 fax, promises to be much faster, transmitting at about the same speed a photocopier copies or a laser printer prints. Alternatively, this generation of equipment will be able to produce high-resolution images in the 15 to 20 seconds it currently takes to transmit a faxed page, in many cases obviating the need for a hard copy to follow by snail mail.

Videoconferencing--Because of several false starts, videoconferencing has received something of a bad name. But reasonably priced, real-time two-way video depending on inexpensive CCD (charge-coupled device) cameras is just around the corner. I`ve seen it demonstrated a number of times, and it works. And the pipe for raw video transmission is about 100 MHz wide--the standards-based upper limit of the Category 5 network in place in most organizations today. True, various encoding and compression techniques can reduce the pipe size for video to such an extent that it can be transmitted over phone lines today, but such techniques can add to the cost. So, it`s useful to keep in mind the pipe size you need to transmit raw video signals.

Document imaging--I recently went without automobile insurance because my provider took more than a week to get my premium payment up on its computer system. I`m now looking for another insurer, one with a better document-imaging system. Government agencies, hospitals, universities, libraries, architects, banks, and many other enterprises that generate a large volume of paperwork will find themselves grinding to a halt in the near future without electronic imaging; my current insurer appears to have already done so.

Interactive multimedia--Although I don`t claim to be completely Internet-literate, my teenaged son does, and so do all his friends. When my son is finished surfing the `Net to complete his homework assignments, he turns on MTV for background music and logs onto a chat room with his friends. This is what interactive multimedia is all about, and it takes bandwidth. When I get a bigger pipe to my home, he`ll be able to watch and listen to MTV on a window on the computer screen while typing (or perhaps even talking) in the chat room.

By now, my conclusion should be obvious: There is already a growing need for more bandwidth in many businesses and homes, and that demand is only going to increase as new and upgraded communications services come online. In some cases, as with my insurance company, more bandwidth will be a matter of business survival. In others, as with my son`s interactive multitasking, bandwidth will provide better entertainment and more information. So, for business or for pleasure, the bandwidth boom is here to stay.

More in Home