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Memory Lane: Highway star

Tue, 12/03/2013 - 7:07pm
Stewart Schley, Media & technology writer

In the summer of 1919, a convoy of 81 U.S. Army vehicles began a cross-country journey from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. Traveling at an average speed of 6 miles an hour, 24 officers and 258 soldiers lurched across parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, the open plains of the Midwest and over the Rocky Mountains before reaching their destination 62 days and 3,251 miles later. The convoy hewed more or less to the Lincoln Highway, a two-lane, rock-surfaced road that was the nation’s first transcontinental driving route. It was intentionally an arduous trip, arranged shortly after the end of World War I and meant to test whether it would be possible to move a self-sufficient military procession across the country.

Among the young officers who made the trek was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who as president would later convince Congress to enact the 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, creating the U.S. interstate highway system. Impressed by Germany’s ability to move military forces during WWII and influenced by the memory of his long trek across the Lincoln Highway, Eisenhower resolved to create a far-reaching U.S.highway network partly to assure military agility.

Eisenhower’s vision of the 42,000-mile interstate system as (at least in part) a military mobility resource is worth recounting 60-some years later as the U.S. and nations across the world contemplate the next iteration of a different sort of highway, specifically the construction of ultra-high capacity broadband networks.

There are grand and vocal disagreements flying about today as governments and private parties square off over the supposed usefulness of next-generation networks capable of hurtling digital data to everyday consumers at speeds of 1 gigabit per second or faster. Skeptics argue investing in super-fast networks is folly, particularly when government subsidies and taxes are involved. Among the standard-bearers of this line of thinking is Richard Bennett, who previously was vice chair of the IEEE 802.3 task force that devised the Ethernet-over-twisted pair standard. Writing for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Bennett argues the supposed merits of gigabit networks are overblown. “The gap between the requirements of today’s applications and the capacity of today’s networks is already ridiculously large, so there’s no rational argument for increasing it,” Bennett wrote in an October critique. As he points out, the average broadband Internet connection in the U.S. as measured by Akamai is an impressive 8.7 megabits per second.

Similar thinking has been expressed from time to time by executives of U.S. cable companies.

At Morgan Stanley’s Technology Conference early this year, Irene Esteves, at the time CFO of Time Warner Cable, noted very few residential customers buy TWC’s fastest Internet tiers and said the company saw little need for replicating the 1 Gbps speeds that a few rivals, including Google, were promising in some markets. (Esteves added that if market demand for gigabit networks did emerge, TWC is prepared to deliver it.) Google and other proponents counter that evaluating broadband networks on the basis of how well they accommodate today’s applications is short-sighted.

Whether Netflix video streams or Flickr photo uploads perform admirably over networks operating at megabits per second isn’t the point, they say. It’s whether a new generation of applications is being held back because networks have throughput limitations.

As a Google executive told a writer for Government Technology earlier this year, “We’re kind of hitting the ceiling imposed by today’s Web speeds…engineers have these great ideas for products that they want to deploy to customers, but Web speeds are just draining their ability to do that.”

Naysayers scoff at that sort of thinking as populist pretense. But a long roadmap of technology innovation begs for a second thought. In 2002, when most of the nation’s Internet users were fixed to slow, dial-up networks, the idea of a high-definition video streaming service like Netflix or Hulu seemed preposterous. So did the notion of Skyping with a family member across an ocean. As network performance has elevated inventors have risen to the occasion.

It works that way in the analog world, too. In the 1950s Dwight D. Eisenhower worked tirelessly to advance the vision for a road system motivated in part by the need to move hulking military vehicles around the country more efficiently. Fast-forward to 2013, when one product of his vision is the 2013 Tesla Model S, a screaming-fast electrically powered automobile that uses software to throttle its maximum speed to about 130 MPH. I doubt the general saw that one coming. But I bet he would have loved to drive one.

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