The Bandwidth Dilemma

Internet stagnation after Dotcom.mania

England has got its own breed of internet visionaries and Charles Leadbeateris one them. He is promoter of “the ignorance economy”(1), author of “Livingon Thin Air: The New Economy”(2), advising the Blair government in e-commerce matters and a consultant at the technology venture fund AtlasVenture. In the New Statesman of January 15, heralding the “second coming”of the internet, he states that “the internet is not finished. We are merely seeing the end of the growth of the first internet.”(3) What a relief amidst all the NASDAQ doom and gloom. It’s the kind of salvation we expect from apracticing priest of organized optimism. However, such escapes into brightfuturism are the easy-way-out. The dilemma between the populist   text-based”back to ascii” position versus the post-literary, high performance streaming media is real. A uneasy choice which the IT-industry may struggle with, way after the future.

Against historical commonsense Leadbeater, a former Financial Timesjournalist, dates the “first internet” from 1996 to 2000. Forget the twenty-five years or so year before the world wide web took off. Leadbeater is well aware of this forgery. He deliberately rewrites history, provoking the ascii/linux believers by saying that the internet was born out of the dotcom spirit of e-commerce. What Leadbeater is pushing is what we may call New Voluntarism. Forget the hackers story of Internet rooted in military/academic informatics. Internet was born out of the Will to eBusiness. Shopping and entertainment are the true nature of humankind. They are the one and only source, engine and destiny of the Net.

Unlike most New Economy prophets Leadbeater lacks sympathy for the geniality of technology and its code magicians. What he is saying, and what many of the failed dotcom entrepreneurs would think in secret, is that internetshould shake of the yoke from technology. Applications and protocols whichonce pulled off this incredible global computer network were now stagnating its further development. How this liberation could be achieved is another matter.

According to Leadbeater the “first internet” failed because the technologists and geeks, in the end, triumphed over the CEOs and their managers and usability html slaves. Early online business pioneers were of good will, ready to serve their first customers. But the general audience got scared off by geekish hocus-pocus. Consumers, terrified by the complexity and clumsiness of this hyped-up yet incredibly self-referential environment simply left, way too early, never to come back again. No Super Bowl-style “offline” advertisement could seduce people to type in the domain
names, however genius its name. The initially overprized stock values ofinternet startups, based on presupposed continuous turnover growth lost itspotential customer base. By early 2000 the IT-goldrush, faced with marketsaturation, flipped into a downward spiral. The absent clicking and stickingcyber masses had triggered off the first internet recession.

See here the conspiracy theory of the New Economists: blame it on the geeks.In Leadbeater’s words: “The page-based internet is boring. People wantgenuinely interactive experience, with drama, excitement, games and jokes.The first internet spent little on content and charged nothing for it. The result: hosts of bored consumers using a medium designed for geeks and nerds.”

What Leadbeater is trying to sell is dreamware, this time not developed byCalifornian anarcho capitalists but big media business, AOL-TimeWarnerstyle. “The net will prosper when it is no longer the preserve of geeks, andwhen the speed of connections and size of bandwidth are secondary to thequality of the experience it delivers.” How the news and game entertainmentindustry will reach supremacy while simultaneously pushing the borders oftechnological know-how remains unclear. In any case, the taming of geekdomis on the agenda of the virtual class–not anymore the Microsoft case. Theparanoia for monopolies has shifted to a diffuse fear for over-development in technological directions without markets.

The playful collaboration of technologists and venture capitalists has come to an end. Online creativity has shifted to other levels to express itself and moved, for example, to peer-to-peer networks and open source software development.   Decentralized gift economies which are much harder to economize compared to the heydays of webdesign and the following portalization of online content and services.

Looking down on the primitive, pre-historic past before e-commerce, the first internet was “accessed through cumbersome personal computers andnarrowband telephone lines that allowed you to download limited amounts ofinformation,” Leadbeater writes. “Its basic currency is information, mainly in text form, and searching for it is frustratingly slow and chaotic.”

As an Online-Uebermensch, just returned from the future, so kind to share afew of his thoughts with us earthlings, Leadbeater has no mercy with theclunky functionality of pre-millennial technology which still surrounds us. “The web pages on which the text is displayed are dense and dull; they deliver none of the excitement of a good television advertisement. They rarely make you laugh, intentionally.” Someone must have fooled Leadbeater. Those funny Americans perhaps? Anyway. He is really disappointed. “The internet was supposed to be immediate, personalized, interactive and rich in content. It turned out to be slow, dense, clunky and boring.”

A brief look into the political economy of bandwidth could help. The question of internet speed is and will always be determined by economics and(cyber)geography, as the maps show,(4) not per se by the technology used atthe consumer’s end. Speed on the internet is moody and in constant flux, notonly depending on one’s investment in hardware, locality and availableconnectivity. Speed is subjective and cultural experience. A whole range ofunknown factors can bring the undisturbed surfing to a sudden halt. A brokendeep-sea cable, a crucial land cable destroyed by a tractor, the US Eastcoast suddenly switching on their terminals or one of the main switches of MCI, AT&T, NTT or BT, gone down for a few seconds. Over the years, bandwidth suddenly has grown, however, this progress has been too slow for users to notice. The arrivals of ten of millions of newbies has eaten up new capacity with recent signs of a drop in bandwidth capacity due to overpricing; a “lack of demand” as the business press calls it.(5)

Instead of analyzing the present, Leadbeater rushes back to the future. “Thenext internet will be accessed everywhere, anytime, not just through heftycomputers.” Charles’ future is going to be a Walhalla of access:”Telecommunication links will be wireless as well as well as landlines, andthey will be broadband.” He is promising nothing less than paradise on earth. “The second internet will be more interactive; games and animation will become commonplace.” In short: “The second internet – wireless, ubiquitous, fast, rich in quality entertainment, drama and quality – will transform how we live, vote, shop, save, communicate and learn.”

Apparently Leadbeater has not read the “13 things to know aboutbroadband.”(6) But he is well aware that he cannot deliver his technotopiaovernight. “The components of the next internet will not come together foranother three years.” Now, that’s interesting. Three years is almost a lifetime, measured in internet time, specially if we remember the acceleration of the technological boom during the roaring nineties. The three years in which the web established itself (1994-1997) and the even less then three years boom to bust period of dotcom.mania (1998-2000). But let’s suppose Leadbeater is right here. It may indeed take many years until broadband and cable modem will have penetrated Western households deep enough to create a critical user mass. Crucial time the internet business community and most users don’t have. We can read alarming editorials on the portal pages of about the impact the bandwidth stagnation has on drying up and video businesses. Only those with long term strategies will survive.

A similar situation with the rapidly emerging peer-to-peer networks. Napsterhas been build up by university students, using campus hard disk space andconnectivity. Napster, the revolt of the music-loving consumers turned mpeg3pirates has a majority of 56K modem owners as its constituency, mainlyinterested in downloading, not exchanging files. Peer-to-peer networks willonly take-off when the majority of its users has a permanent, open connection to the Net.   Until then the uploading-downloading ratio will remain unbalanced. Clerics of professional positivism will point at the ever bright future, showing   growth figures of the diminishing bandwidth divide. An ever-growing amount of users may or may not yet have plenty bandwidth under their fingertips. The question is when? Streaming media producers and users demand broadband NOW. Not next year or in a decade. Telcos worldwide are reluctant to roll out broadband, deliberately delaying the upgrade of their networks to DSL levels. Investments in high performance flatrate access is not generating that much more cash, to the present infrastructure and revenue streams.

The future is taking revenge on those who have, either mentally or virtually, already arrived there. It is disappointedly empty and lonely out there: promising but without customers. Those who do not want to turn into bandwidth optimists have the option to go   a few steps back and return to the productive atmosphere of low-tech tinkering. The choice between the conceptual cave of 3D streaming images and a retrograde ascii-code fundamentalism is becoming more and more attractive – and uncomfortable. Where should projects and networks go? Stay within the grey 56K world wide wait mainstream? Go avant-garde, requiring DSL, ending up in the sovereign atmospheres of the happy few? Jump back in history and muck around with linux code or WAP for tiny mobile screens? You chose. Of course we want everything, but that’s a too easy excuse.

What we see here is a return of a similar dilemma back in the early ninetiesbetween offline multimedia 3D-interactive television/virtual reality and the real existing cyberspace, internet, about to make its significant yet aesthetically disappointing quantum jump from Unix kernel to hypertext transfer protocol (HTML).

Collaborative filtering sites such as slashdot, plastic and the vines face the same dilemma. Apart from problematic editorial policies and the unresolved question of ownership over   collaborative text databases there is the issue of those, living outside of access oases, not being able to contribute to important debates which are increasingly being held exclusively on web forums. Exchange of opinions on the internet is gradually migrating away from e-mail-based newsgroups and mailinglists towards websites. The web is undermining the presumably democratic and equalizing character of e-mail.

It is a false but nonetheless real choice which is on the table. The Net isdeveloping in possibly conflicting directions. The image of a harmoniousconvergence of webTV, PC and handheld devices does not exist in a worldwhere there can only be one Big Next Thing at the time.

—— 1. “Capitalize on the Economy! We’ve had knowledge management. Now it’s time for ignorance management.” 2. Review of Living on Thin Ignorance Air: 3. Reprinted in The Australian Financial Review, 19 January, 2001. Original available at (warning: complicated procedure to download content). 4. From theTelegeography 2001 report: ” International Internet bandwidth is growing faster than international Internet traffic, however. In the past few years, tremendous physical infrastructure builds began to come on-line. Because raw bandwidth does not translate immediately into Internet capacity, however — it must first be lit, sold, deployed, and integrated into data network operations — the numbers showed what, to casual observers, appeared to be a mismatch between physical capacity and Internet capacity. See also, the site for the book Mapping Cyberspace, and Brian Carroll’s project 5. “Bandwidth Narrows: Pan-European telecom carriers are having to curb their ambitions in a year that analysts predict will be the start of the communications shakeout. Last week, FirstMark, Viatel and GTS (Global TeleSystems) all announced they would cut their European operations. A glut of bandwidth, a lack of demand and the bottleneck of the “local loop” to homes and offices, meant a reversal of fortunes last year. And to add to their woes, share prices were badly hit in the tech slump and extra financing became hard to come by.” 6. 13 Things to Know About Broadband by Gerry McGovern, fist published in his “New Thinking” electronic newsletter, then published in Steven Carlson’s NowEurope newsletter which was forwarded on May 13, 2000 to the nettime mailinglist ( On January 13, 2001 David Garcia forwarded “13 reactions” of John W. Patterson to nettime in response to Gerry McGovern.