September 26, 2012

Broadband: Lifeblood, not Luxury


I don’t consider myself a railroad buff, but I still have fascination in watching a train of a hundred double-high Conex containers making its way through the desert, stumbling upon an old switching yard, or following an old mountain grade. Maybe because boxcars, switchyards, and rails remind me of a life-size packet switched network. A few months ago, I was hiking at Donner Pass, near Lake Tahoe in California. For those who only remember the name from the infamous Donner Party, the pass has played a critical role throughout much of California’s history.


Old Lincoln Highway under railroad; US 40 in background

The pass was the only viable way through the Sierra Nevada range for hundreds of miles. First the Indians, and then decades of emigrants heading west braved its slopes and weather. This followed by the Transcontinental Railroad and the old Lincoln Highway. Later still, Federal 40, the Donner Pass Road, was constructed. This road still offers a more peaceful alternative to most people’s experience with the pass today, Interstate 80. Less visible than any of these engineering works are the cable markers scattered up the hillside, the sign of buried copper and fiber.

What the railroad meant to people a century ago, commerce and connectivity, is reflected in the buried fiber of today. And when the railroad, or the interstate highway bypassed a town, commerce dried up and the inhabitants left for greener pastures. Remember Radiator Springs in the Pixar film ‘Cars’? It is still happening. Garden City, a town in Kansas, is in danger of losing their daily passenger service after over a century. Yes, there are economics at play, and yes, there are roads and I’m sure they’ll keep their local McDonald’s, but this story is being played out hundreds of times in hundreds of small towns, not only in the United States but throughout the world.

So how does this relate to buried fiber? Cost-effective, broadband connectivity is no longer a nice-to-have for both competitive and social reasons, it’s a must-have, just like the railroads or highways. Get connected and the community flourishes, often in unexpected ways. Get bypassed and wither up and blow away.

And it is not 300 Kbps either, a speed that some government studies over the last decade attempted to characterize as “broadband”. Just as a locomotive is of little use without tracks, one laptop per child is of little use unless there is bandwidth. Indeed, educators are suggesting that the typical elementary school will require upwards of 1 Gbps to the outside world. At Extreme we’re in the thick of dozens of these deployments, but sadly they end at the school office. To use highway analogy, a six-lane freeway connects the classrooms, but it is a rutted old dirt road that connects the school to the rest of the world.

I applaud the recent Obama administration initiative that takes a new look at solving this disconnect. Although the executive order only established a working group, it tackles the problem not in terms of technology, or what to expect from Comcast or AT&T, but with regard to rights-of-way. Remember – this was the same kickstart the government provided to the railroad companies in the 1800s through land grants, and the government still controls nearly 30% of the land in the United States. A second initiative created U.S. Ignite, which focuses on developing broadband and software-defined networking applications through a public-private partnership.  Today, we announced our membership in U.S. Ignite, and in November we will host a major event in North Carolina that speaks to the impact that these types of initiatives can have on local economies.  Stay tuned! 

At Extreme, our watchword is ‘Software Defines the Network,’ with the first part of our strategy announced over the last few months. Going forward, we expect to be able to play a key role in driving innovation in this space. With a little luck, we might even help pave some of those dirt roads.

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Extreme Marketing Team

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