Broadband Is Like Plumbing

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What’s that Mike?

by Mike Hines

So, there I was, in conversation with family and friends on Independence Day when the group shifted topic to broadband…and a funny thing happened.

When I hear the term “broadband” a basket of narrowly focused technical images come to mind. I guess it’s only natural after spending a few decades wrestling with telecoms engineers and trying to absorb an endless stream of wired, WiFi, and fiber optics standards. Jargon.

During the conversation it dawned on me that jargon was critically important to clear dialogue within an industry, but otherwise useless. Case in point. My brother-in-law, a career military man and part of our chat, now based locally after serving overseas, had earlier been discussing the activity of a former unit. Here’s a sampling of the conversation: “Guys from the one one O two of the eighty-fifth IBCT were in theater and down range climbing out of their MRAP with incoming. The NCO and a couple guys took indirect but they’re back. Lucky. The MaxxPro took the heat.”

For those accustomed, this “need to know” jargon makes perfect sense – providing details, history, vivid description, chain of events, big picture and small. For others it’s baffling. I’m just glad technology did its job and these guys were able to walk away. The jargon of broadband is equally confusing for the uninitiated.

Broadband

I don’t know when it happened, but the term broadband escaped the realm of engineering, entered the lexicon, and is now common in most languages. Impressive for a phrase that didn’t exist just a few decades ago. But, what does it mean?

To define “broadband” I first checked in with Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English dictionaries. I researched legal dictionaries and, for good measure, the Telecom Dictionary. Combining and paraphrasing, broadband means fast transfer of digital information (files, images, video, and interactive exchange) to us.

Okay, so what does broadband mean to those of us in the remodeling and home construction industry?

Broadband Is Like Plumbing

Broadband is like plumbing?
Broadband is like plumbing?

Recall a time when indoor plumbing was uncommon but chamber pots and outhouses were. Apart from summer camp, exposure to the traditional latrine was largely out of my experience, and thankfully so. Slow, user unfriendly, maintenance intensive, and, well, stinky. Unpleasant but venerated for real purpose served in a bygone era. Like Dial-up internet service.

Some ingenious people figured out how to defy and then harness gravity, moving water from one place to another in pipes, thus managing flood potential and containing its associated mess. Then, some other sharp folks, the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of their day, foresaw a system for moving fluid around the home to remove refuse and supply fresh water quickly and effortlessly. They were the ones who tinkered alone and envisioned a world well beyond the grasp of their contemporaries.1 Enter the era of the Water Closet, sewers, and septic systems. A means for high speed transfer and storage of, uhhhh, files. In this case, stuff they hoped to distance themselves from and forget quickly. Transmit and receive.

Whether you’re sweating pipe joints or fusing optical fibers, the goals are really the same. What’s the fastest and most reliable way to move our junk far away, losing as little as possible, and avoiding unpleasant leaks?

If plumbing and broadband are similar, how do they differ?

Well, the plumbing industry has been dealing with tons of crap for centuries. Demands increased in step with that of the population – predictable, steady-state growth. The size and quantity of pipes needed within the home are tied pretty closely to the number of individuals in residence. The backbone of the system, municipal water and sewer lines, are sized for population growth, providing capacity to accommodate entire neighborhoods and boroughs plus added proportion for times of peak demand. Think of every toilet flushing in unison during SuperBowl XLIV halftime in New Orleans and you’ll get the gist of peak usage. In telecom terms, these municipal pipes offer high bandwidth (carrying capacity) – broadband if you will. The magnitude of consumption between slack and peak periods is where similarities end.

Consumption varies by person. At the height of the scale we have the Joe Chestnuts of Nathan’s Famous 4th of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest fame. Joe and his fellow contestants are power eaters. What they consume and then produce likely exceeds the peak capacity of any plumbing system. I don’t know this for fact but I imagine sixty-eight hot dogs and buns must stress the home infrastructure in numerous ways, potentially exceeding the bandwidth of the private network – in-house plumbing. Perhaps they use higher bandwidth plumbing within their homes?

Hot Dogs are like Broadband too!
Hot Dogs are like Broadband too!

According to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, the number of frankfurters consumed by Americans at major league ballparks would stretch from Philadelphia to St. Petersburg. Not only that, on Independence Day alone, the wieners consumed by Americans would stretch from Washington, DC to Los Angeles and back – five times. These statistics, apparently, make no consideration for bratwurst, knockwurst or sauerkraut, oh, and mustard, Gulden’s Spicy Brown a favorite of mine for hot dogs…and hot dogs alone. I digress.

During the high season for tube steaks, Memorial Day through Labor Day, Americans eat about seven billion. I am told the scientific community measures this on a universal frankfurter scale where 7,000,000,000 dogs equals 7 Giga frankfurters, or 7 Gf.

Considering time, this converts to gastrointestinal flow of eight-hundred eighteen Vienna Sausages each second and this brings us to the important notion of rate. 7Gf, from June to September, equates to eight-hundred eighteen frankfurters per second or 818 fps. Our national plumbing grid is designed with bandwidth to handle this rate, plus periodic loads associated with high volume arenas like stadiums. Peak loads of, say, 5,000 fps…or 5 Kfps. Remarkable when you think of the planning required for such a system. I recall the construction or Rentschler Field, the football stadium for our beloved UConn Huskies. As it neared completion a milestone was reached…the newsworthy simultaneous flush test. The business end of advanced arena architecture.

Magnitude

With household names like American Standard, it seems some ingenious people figured out how much waste a human could produce and so began the meteoric rise of the US plumbing industry. No easy task, but made simpler because the human digestive system has well-defined and historically stable limits on maximum capacity.

The brain, unlike the stomach, is unencumbered with limits on capacity. (although, in my case, some would argue otherwise) It consumes aural, visual, olfactory and other sense-based information in volumes beyond comprehension. Some bright folks figured out how to convert this information to digital bits, handily packaged in Bytes of eight bits each. Interestingly, most people who eat hot dogs in a single bite are consuming eight bits at once. I have no proof, but folklore suggests that this is where the term Byte originated. So, the next time someone asks to sample your lunch…think long and hard, do they want a bite or a Byte?

The cool thing about Bytes is that they’re universal. They’re understood on any continent and easy to produce, digest, store and exchange. Where would the Internet be without them? Think of hard drives, flash drives, digital video cameras, smartphones, etc. The tools we use daily and can no longer do without.

So, the Bytes we create, when extrapolated across the population with consideration for the electronic gadgetry we now tote, grow exponentially. This leads to storage devices with capacity orders of magnitude higher each year, larger files…and the ensuing need to share more Bytes. To do so efficiently, we simply send more bits at faster rates…and the pipes, err, wires we send them on, need to keep up. That’s where increased bandwidth, higher information carrying capacity, comes in. Like frankfurters per second, data rate is described in bits per second or bps.

Time Is Our Most Valued Asset

Broadband optimizes the one commodity we all want more of, and once used, can never get back – time. Simply put, broadband promises “fast”. Do you know the frustrating sensation of having to wait as a large file transfers or a web video loads?

When you purchase broadband from your Internet Service Provider (ISP) you’re buying bandwidth and it’s sold in the form of branded data rate. The higher the bit rate, the faster you can share or consume information. The faster the rate, the better the quality for things like streaming music and video, medical imagery, and commerce, etc.

Like leap-frog, as we create more and richer content to share, ISP’s increase the data rates they provide by upgrading their wires, cell towers, satellites and other transmission equipment. 3G mobile wireless goes to 4G with the promise of blazing speeds. Comcast comes to us with xfinity and hints at speeds of 150,000,000 bits per second -150 Mbps. AT&T comes out with U-verse, their brand of bringing fiber optics closer to the end user while utilizing older copper wires to link to each home. Verizon steps in with FiOS, using Fiber To The Home (FTTH) to position themselves for unlimited bandwidth upgrades by virtue of the all optical fiber network they’re deploying. Google weighs in, putting pressure on the incumbent ISP’s by promising an experiment with FTTH deployment of 1,000 Mbps – 1Gbps and open service provider competition. Different approaches to solving the same problem – faster data rates for the consumer. Seamless connectivity and heightened user experience the goal.

Squeezing exponential increases in Bytes along networks external and internal to the home is the challenge. As this happens, improved wired and wireless technologies are deployed by your ISP to address change. When external service improvements occur, they drive upgrades within your home or building.

With so much information being created and shared, the bandwidth demanded of the system inevitably rises beyond its capacity. This may not happen tomorrow but it will, and well within the life span of the structure you design and build.

Don’t be dismayed by the jargon, broadband is like plumbing. As remodelers and building professionals we owe it to our clients to build them structures that stand the test of time. Leave them with plumbing that handles their everyday use plus the occasional spike. And, be sure to provide options to upgrade their wiring. Help them digest broadband enabled entertainment right along with their hot dogs and they’ll thank you forever.

About the the author:

Mike Hines is the founder of Exapath, a smart way to run wiring that anticipates future wiring needs.

Exapath for today, for tomorrow.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Nice comparison. One difference I can think of is, in case of clogging or backflow; broadband is much less messier than plumbing.

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