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Forget WiMax, Stockholm's got cable to spare

Red Ken, take notes

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Dissent was vocal in the early days of Stokab, too. Internet providers pointed out the importance of competition. Prices, they pointed out, would never come down under a civic-owned authority - not the way they would if several private networks were competing to carry the bits.

Apparently, the dissent lasted about as long as it took to get Stokab up and running. As soon as it actually had an infrastructure, its charter forced it to provide those bits at cost. And the licence it had to put cable in any trench meant that its costs were a fraction of what independent ISPs had had to spend commissioning large scale civil engineering projects.

The simple fact is that most of the dreams of truly high-speed, high-def internet everywhere cannot be provided until high-speed fibre runs not just to the kerb, but into every home.

This isn't the place for a serious dissertation on interactive video, but anybody who has watched the "videophone" connections used by TV reporters these days will know that it's actually worse to have speech that's badly lip-synched than just plain audio without images.

All you have to accept is that the only really satisfactory way to have two-way video is to have pretty high definition cameras, with a minimum of data compression, a minimum of cache, and as little processor involvement as possible. Yes, it's possible to have video streaming work very satisfactorily, too. But as long as you're streaming, latency isn't a problem. Two way interaction, however, and suddenly latency is a real problem; and the internet itself generates latency at every stage.

The way around that is to have a raw data rate which is very high and a cost per bit which is very low.

In the UK, the cable experiment - imposed on BT by Margaret Thatcher, who hated state ownership or anything like it - meant that vast amounts of capital investment went into digging up huge urban areas, putting independent cable companies into business. Not one of those original cable companies is still in business. Their initial high investment costs and the low margins they were allowed to make, made them takeover targets - today, all we have is one cable company, Virgin Media. And there are plenty of districts where the cable pioneers never went and, probably, never will.

London's Mayor should have no inhibitions about imposing a city-owned utility on the capital. He is currently staring into a plan of infrastructure changes which will mean digging up the roads anyway.

This idea is not a challenge to BT or Virgin or any other cable operation. It's a co-operative, community-funded way of keeping costs down at a level where the cost per bit can get down to the level that true interactive, two-way video communications is feasible.

In the 24,000 islands off Stockholm, Cisco and Intel claim to be very pleased with their demo of how WiMAX can help cover areas where digging up the road simply isn't an option. The waters off the East coast of Sweden are very deep, and people have a habit of dropping anchors into them.

In London, who knows? Maybe a WiMAX experiment might even make sense, with a cheap basic infrastructure around which to build it? But, until global warming really does turn Greater London into a series of islands in the sea, probably not... ®

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