The Broadband Explosion: Thinking About a Truly Interactive World

When true broadband arrives, everything will change—work, play, and society—say professors Robert Austin and Stephen Bradley. What a truly interactive world will look like is the subject of their new book The Broadband Explosion.
by Sara Grant

The world as we know it is about to change in many ways thanks to a "broadband explosion"—the coming together of real-time communication and rich media. Professors Robert Austin and Stephen Bradley discuss their new book by that title and the implications for society.

Sara Grant: How did this edited volume come about, and what is meant by the term "broadband explosion"?

Robert Austin: This book was a result of the fourth Harvard Business School Colloquium on the Computer and Telecommunications industries, which was held on campus in the spring of 2003. These invitation-only conferences are convened every few years (the one before this one was in 1995); the idea is to bring together a critical mass of the best thinkers in these industries for an intense session of discussion and debate. Participants in the 2003 colloquium included Eric Schmidt (Google CEO), Reed Hundt (former FCC head), Geoffrey Moore (author of Crossing the Chasm), Rick Rashid (MS Research), our own Clay Christensen, and many others. It was a very exciting several days, with lots of energetic interaction. Many of the participants agreed to contribute chapters to a book. Steve Bradley and I co-chaired the conference and co-edited the book, with the idea of capturing as much as possible of the excellent thinking that came out during this event.

By "broadband explosion" we mean the coming together of real-time communication and rich media technologies to produce a truer form of interactivity across geographic distance than has been possible up until now. We've had some forms of interactive technologies for a long time (e.g., telephone) and many kinds of media too, but real-time interactivity at a distance that comes anywhere near what we experience in face-to-face communication has been elusive. That's too bad, because people have been anticipating profound effects from the ability to collaborate in real time at a distance for a long time. One of our favorite examples of this is described in a paper written in 1968 by Internet pioneers J. C. R. Licklider and Bob Taylor, called "The Computer as a Communication Device." These guys imagined human capabilities moving to a new level when real-time interactivity was realized. They expected an acceleration of our abilities to innovate and work creatively. The vision is compelling. The only thing they got wrong was how long it would take us to get there. We are suggesting that the day may finally be arriving. The implications, if so, will be numerous and important. Various chapters in the book describe how business strategy, production technologies, and marketing—to name just a few—may be changed dramatically.

Q: If there is agreement that a broadband explosion is generally a desirable thing, what role should government regulators and policymakers play in encouraging it?

A: This is one of the major issues in the book, but there is considerable difference of opinion on this point. Different countries are taking very different approaches to investment in an infrastructure that will allow the broadband explosion to come into being. The United States, for example, is leaving just about everything to the market. The recent FCC approach has been to create a climate conducive to competition and then sit back and let business decide what is best. This might prove to be a wise approach. Governments have a mixed track record when it comes to encouraging investment in specific technologies.

Different countries are taking very different approaches to investment in an infrastructure that will allow the broadband explosion to come into being.

But other countries are moving much more aggressively to create new broadband infrastructure. One result is that the United States appears to be slipping behind. According to some measures, the United States is not even in the top ten in terms of broadband deployment. People in other countries definitely get more bandwidth for less money. Some countries, such as South Korea, appear to be far ahead. Whether or not this will have major business consequences remains to be seen.

Q: What sort of insights do you hope managers will gain from this book?

A: Because of the quality of the people involved in the colloquium and the book, there are many, many important insights, in a lot of different areas. But let me just mention a few:

A lot of people feel that there is a qualitative shift in what will be achieved when the bandwidth that is reliably available reaches a certain point. There's debate about where the point is, but let's say ten megabits per second. That's roughly twenty times faster than most cable modem connections in the United States. Once that is in place, and is reliable (that is, you can count on getting that kind of bandwidth), and it's easy to start up a session, people will start to figure out many new ways to create value. This will change a lot about how businesses operate and also about what they can sell and how they sell it.

A second insight: A lot of the benefits from the broadband explosion will probably arise from non-obvious, second-order effects—things we can't see clearly right now. The human tendency in trying to predict what will happen in the future is to extrapolate in a straight line from today. So we imagine doing more of what we do with communication today when we have more bandwidth. But that's a mistake made clear by the parallel to the '60s and '70s and computer power. Moore's Law was at work making chips more and more powerful at lower and lower prices, but early on people could not see what we would do with all that computing power. At the time they were mostly using computers as big calculators or big transaction-processing machines (for doing accounting or payroll, for example). And they looked around and asked themselves, "How many paychecks are there to process in the world?" Fortunately, there were other visionaries who saw that we'd use a lot of that power to change the way we interacted with computers, by making user interfaces more friendly, for example. Back then, people who said, "What will we use all that computing power for?" were surprised by how useful it was and the ways it turned out to be useful. Today we have some skeptics saying pretty much the same thing: "What will we do with all that bandwidth?" I suspect the answers will be similarly surprising.

A third intuition arises out of the one I've just mentioned. Another parallel we think might appear is that just as skyrocketing computer power was used to create a more interactive experience between people and computers, skyrocketing bandwidth might be used to create a much more interactive experience in communication. This allows us to structure work differently, to achieve more communicative loops, and to therefore try more things faster and more cheaply. This has the potential to supercharge innovation, because we can prototype more ideas and share them with each other much more rapidly. That's on the supply side of the economy. On the demand or marketing side, the new technology may allow us to match more customers with just what they want, by employing a strategy that Eric Clemons and his coauthors in a chapter in the book call "Hyperdifferentiation."

Q: In your essay with Jeremy Allaire titled "Broadband and Collaboration," you mention the need for interactive, richer, real-time tools to achieve this. You also mention the need for a human component to be added to interactive communication such as "emotion," "location," "context," and "action." Is this possible to achieve?

A: Yes, I think so. And perhaps more importantly and significantly, Jeremy really thinks so. He's out on the front lines creating this kind of technology. As you probably know, Jeremy was instrumental in creating Macromedia's Flash technology, so he really knows what he's talking about. This is the "rich media" component of our argument. You might note that instant messaging is pretty interactive, and it is. Instant messaging is very important as a signal of the appetite for interactivity. It's grown from almost nothing in 1995, to an immense magnitude (hundreds of millions of accounts) ten years later. But it is not a very rich form of media, at least in its purely text-based form. Jeremy and others are hard at work creating experiences that will be much richer, but just as easy to initiate and engage in.

Q: What other areas are you focusing on with regard to broadband, given its current state?

A: The chapter in the book on Internet2, the research test bed for high bandwidth networking, gives you a survey of the many, many things that are being worked on. Much of it is pre-commercial. It's hard to see at the moment how a "data glove" that allows you to touch something with your fingers from 1,000 miles away and feel it push back at you—to single out just one example, from an area called "haptic computing"—will be commercially valuable. But I'd be willing to bet that it will be. And someone, somewhere reading this right now can think of a way to make this valuable, even if you or I can't.

A lot of the benefits from the broadband explosion will probably arise from non-obvious, second-order effects.

There's an awful lot going on, in science, in medicine, in the arts. One episode that we describe in the book as the type of rich interaction that can be achieved is a long-distance cello master class. During the colloquium, we had an advanced music student in Boston take a master class from a cello master who happened to be in Miami, all over the Internet (over Internet2, actually). As you might imagine, a master class at that level requires a communication experience that can convey a lot of subtlety, but it worked just fine.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I continue to work on the idea that computing technologies that reduce the cost of trying new things, thus making work more "iterative," can supercharge innovation processes. The way we do work in the future is going to be drastically changed by this. People are used to thinking about computers as ways of making things efficient or lower in cost (through automation). And it's good for that. But the potential for computers to support creative processes is not fully appreciated and is far from fully realized. We talk about some of this in Chapter One of the book. It's the issue that pretty much obsesses me and pervades my research.

About the Author

Sara Grant is publications coordinator of HBS Working Knowledge.