Arthur Goldstuck

The valve-radio days

2008-02-01 11:24

Arthur Goldstuck

Ever wonder why, well into the 21st Century, your internet experience is so frustrating? Why your connection so often falls over or slows to a crawl? Why websites refuse to open or take forever to arrive? Why online services seldom deliver the seamless processes they promise? Why it can be so difficult or so expensive to get a connection when you're away from home base - even in the most connected cities in the world?

The answer is deceptively simple: We are still in the valve-radio days of the internet.

Just as, in the early days of radio, you first had to warm up the valves before you could receive a signal, so you still have to wait for a computer to start up before you can even begin to negotiate your connection to the internet.

Just as the first Marconi radios needed a Marconi-trained and Marconi-employed operator to make them work, so you often need a Helpdesk or support hotline at your Internet Service Provider to sort out the most basic of connectivity issues.

The ideal - and the future promise - is that accessing the internet should be as simple as listening to radio.

A spotty teenager

Switch it on, and it's on. Select a site, and you're on the site. Click on an online video, and you begin watching it, in a high quality transmission with no interruptions. Turn it off, and it's off. No waiting until the computer tells you it's safe to unplug a device; no loss or corruption of files when the power suddenly goes.

The reality is that personal computers as we know them today are less than 30-years-old (give or take a few years of the Apple Macintosh), and the commercial internet no more than 15-years-old. The first commercial activity on the internet was allowed in 1993, and its first graphic interface appeared in 1994, designed by a student.

In the broad sweep of communications history, the internet is still young - a spotty teenager that thinks it has all the answers, but still needs to go round the block a few times.

Continuing the radio metaphor, we are still in the equivalent of the early 1930s, before the invention of FM. Until then, fledgling broadcasters were stuck with AM, a low-power, low-quality signal. Many of its users associated radio with indistinct voices and the hiss and crackle of static underlying their broadcast music.

This is where we are with the internet today.

The good news is that 1935 is almost around the corner. The equivalent of FM, namely high-power, high-quality broadband signals that can be received over a long distance, is almost with us. Why do you think they call it wireless? For our grandparents, "the wireless" was also a revolution.

But "almost here" is still a long time in the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Broadband held hostage

First, we have to experience the false promise of the next generation of broadband technologies and service providers. Something called WiMAX will threaten to unseat something called 3G as a dominant wireless broadband technology. But both are merely placeholders for future broadband technologies jointly lumped under the label of 4G.

Right now, broadband in South Africa is held hostage by Telkom's control of the single undersea cable network connecting this part of Africa to the world. Starting this year, a number of alternatives will start snaking their way across the seabed to the backbones of global telecommunications. And, if the regulatory authorities do their job, any number of service providers will be slicing and dicing consumers' options of taking advantage of those cables.

We are probably five to ten years away from that FM stage of signal evolution. Meanwhile, settle back and try to tolerate the hiss and crackle of the early 21st Century internet.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is an award-winning author and journalist, and is managing director of World Wide Worx, which leads research into internet and mobile communications in South Africa. Visit his urban legends blog at http://thoselegends.blogspot.com and his business blog at http://www.thebigchange.com

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