Warp Speed From Behind

JBrbop02.jpg As we’ve mentioned before Japan has Internet connections much faster than those in the U.S. This point is getting more mainstream media play:
Broadband service here is eight to 30 times as fast as in the United States — and considerably cheaper. Japan has the world’s fastest Internet connections, delivering more data at a lower cost than anywhere else, recent studies show.

Accelerating broadband speed in this country — as well as in South Korea and much of Europe — is pushing open doors to Internet innovation that are likely to remain closed for years to come in much of the United States.

The speed advantage allows the Japanese to watch broadcast-quality, full-screen television over the Internet, an experience that mocks the grainy, wallet-size images Americans endure.

Japan’s Warp-Speed Ride to Internet Future, By Blaine Harden, Washington Post Foreign Service, Wednesday, August 29, 2007; Page A01

So is it just for video? If so, maybe we’d better let the telcos have their way.

Well, that was interactive video, not broadcast content on demand, so that’s already a big difference from what the telcos want to provide. The article notes applications for that interactive video from telemedicine to telecommuting. Why stop there?

Imagine Facebook users able to send each other not only packaged videos, but also to join interactive video chat rooms. Sure, that has all the disadvantages of interactive picturephones. But it also has the advantages of being able to see what somebody is actually doing, with enough resolution to see more than just the face. And think of the gaming possibilities. Japanese and Koreans already do.

The article mentions two reasons for why Japan is so far ahead. One is not as big a deal as you might think:

The copper wire used to hook up Japanese homes is newer and runs in shorter loops to telephone exchanges than in the United States. This is partly a matter of geography and demographics: Japan is relatively small, highly urbanized and densely populated. But better wire is also a legacy of American bombs, which razed much of urban Japan during World War II and led to a wholesale rewiring of the country.
This is not so big a deal for two reasons:
  1. Fast DSL started with NTT West, which connects the less densely populated part of the country, i.e., not Tokyo.
  2. The fastest speeds aren’t over copper: they’re FttH, Fiber to the Home.
The other reason is more important:
In 2000, the Japanese government seized its advantage in wire. In sharp contrast to the Bush administration over the same time period, regulators here compelled big phone companies to open up wires to upstart Internet providers.

In short order, broadband exploded. At first, it used the same DSL technology that exists in the United States. But because of the better, shorter wire in Japan, DSL service here is much faster. Ten to 20 times as fast, according to Pepper, one of the world’s leading experts on broadband infrastructure.

The Japanese government leveled the playing field. Instead of the U.S. FCC’s lip service to open access and open opposition to it in conformance to an ideology of waiting for “market failure”, the Japanese government has actively supported open access. Like the French, the Japanese regulate for competition, which produces speed and innovation.

What the article doesn’t mention is how all this competition started. It says Masayoshi Son and his company Softbank jumped on the bandwagon. The way I heard it, Softbank pestered the government until it agreed to let Softbank sell DSL. Then Softbank went far out on a limb to get its service used, including giving away DSL routers in train stations. After about five years, Softbank turned a profit.

As so often before, Vint Cerf sums it up:

“The experience of the last seven years shows that sometimes you need a strong federal regulatory framework to ensure that competition happens in a way that is constructive,” said Vinton G. Cerf, a vice president at Google.

Japan’s lead in speed is worrisome because it will shift Internet innovation away from the United States, warns Cerf, who is widely credited with helping to invent some of the Internet’s basic architecture. “Once you have very high speeds, I guarantee that people will figure out things to do with it that they haven’t done before,” he said.

They always have. As speeds increased, people who wanted to use them invented electronic mail, networked window systems, the world wide web, interactive web browsers, VoIP, and on up to YouTube and beyond.

I’ve seen a country leapfrog from behind. Until 1994, Japanese law prevented international commercial Internet service. I used to show slides showing Internet hosts per capita per U.S. state, with Arkansas dead last. Then I’d show a slide of countries, with Japan lower than Arkansas. This would detect any Japanese in the audience, by the hissing sound of abrupt embarrassment. I was at the huge new conference center Makuhari Messe outside of Tokyo in 1994 at the first Tokyo Interop trade show, and I saw lines snaking all the way across the show floor as people picked up CDs of software so they could get on the Internet.

The U.S. can do it, too, if it decides to. Such a decision will require the government to stop actively suppressing competition and to get on with enabling it. Then competition will produce speeds and innovation will flower.