Faster ‘pipes’ delivering what?

25 Mar 2004

If we build it will they come? How you answer this question determines which side you are on in the broadband campaign. On the one side there are those who say we should build the broadband network first and that its very existence will promote the development of content. On the other side there are those (including until recently Eircom) that argued we should wait until there is demand before spending money on building a network that might simply sit idle.

But there is a more fundamental question. And that is, what sort of content will the new broadband networks carry. The Information Society Commission’s (ISC) Broadband Working Group identified this question as key to the future of broadband in Ireland and commissioned a report on this topic.

“We were looking very carefully at the rollout of broadband,” says Dr Patricia O’Hara, chairwoman of the Broadband Working Group and member of the ISC. “We came up against the issue of the telcos saying there was no demand so we became concerned with the issue of applications.”

The report, prepared by Peter Bacon and Sonas Innovation identified five key areas: education, health, communications, teleworking and entertainment.

The report noted that in June 2000 the European Commission formally integrated e-learning into its global plan for 2002-2003 and that international research organisation Gartner forecasts that with the exception of web infrastructure, email and search, the most used application on the web by the end of 2005 would be e-learning.

The report also noted that the health service consists of multiple service locations and organisations all of which rely on access to patient information to deliver a comprehensive service.

According to O’Hara it is these two sectors — health and education — that will be the dominant content providers. “From a public sector and national policy point of view, education and health are seen as two critical sectors. Education, in particular, because of the present competitive situation and the emphasis on lifelong learning.”

According to O’Hara, a number of educational experts are saying that in the future we will all need a capacity to learn quickly and to forget quickly. “Broadband will, therefore, be important not just for delivering educational courseware, which is very important, but also for storing information in ways that one can easily access it. So there is huge potential for applications based around learning, upskilling and keeping abreast.”

O’Hara noted that when the ISC looked at the state of Irish schools they found that Irish children were “not as adept as they might be”. This was attributed, she said, not to a lack of computers in schools but to a lack of a coherent strategy based on e-literacy and she welcomed the announcement by Communications Minister Dermot Ahern TD that the Government was committed to providing broadband to all schools in the State.

“In terms of health, the potential applications for broadband are mind boggling,” she says. “Things such as remote diagnosis and remote monitoring can all help to make healthcare a much more patient-centred activity.” O’Hara also notes that the introduction of broadband MANs coincides with the start of a major restructuring of the health service.

“Within 20 years the whole way of delivering healthcare will be changed completely.” She points out that with increased mobility of people within the EU we are looking at the internationalisation of health delivery and that communication of health records to ‘follow’ the patient will be a fundamental keystone in the provision of care.

But that’s not all. The use of information and communications technology (ICT) in the healthcare sector could lead to considerable savings. Based on figures from the US — where it has been estimated that an investment of US$18bn has resulted in savings of US$120bn over a six-year period — the report estimated a similar investment — scaled to account for a lower total budget could yield savings of €150m in 2004 alone.

The report also noted that the effectiveness of communications increases significantly as new technology is adopted. Mobile phone usage, for instance, reached a high level of penetration within the Irish market in a relatively short period — 80pc in six years — and the authors foresee it as likely that the introduction of broadband into the home will act as a motivating factor in the use of ICT to aid communications.

“Society now expects instant and quality communications,” the report says. “Broadband will allow for a myriad of new uses. Sharing home videos with friends and family via broadband is just one such example. Other applications as yet unimagined will arise if the infrastructure and connectivity of broadband are available.”

Broadband in the home is also seen as a prerequisite for new entertainment services. Users of the Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox now have the opportunity to play with other users anywhere in the world. The report notes that Ireland is a leading market for console games and that we are the second largest market for PlayStation outside of Japan.

Standards for delivery of video content over digital networks — MPEG 4 — already exist and are used extensively by the direct broadcast satellite industry and by digital terrestrial television in the UK. Delivery of a single high definition television (HDTV) signal using such standards typically requires about 6Mbps. According to the report, it is generally accepted within the industry that the average home will require four such channels in operation at any one time, therefore necessitating a 24Mbps connection to the home.

Even before the advent of broadband, workers were using ICT to avoid travelling every day between home and office. However, the introduction of broadband will spur further development of this trend. “It is estimated that there will be 20 million teleworkers in the EU by 2006,” says O’Hara. “And it is evident that the number of teleworkers is growing fastest in those countries where broadband is available.”

By David Stewart