Innovation blog: When 1Mbps was our blazingly fast future

Innovation blog: When 1Mbps was our blazingly fast future

Alan Burkitt-Gray.jpg

In his final Innovation column, Alan Burkitt-Gray looks back 30 years, to when he forecast that 1Mbps would provide the superfast superhighway we all need.

Somewhere in a cardboard box in my garage that I’ll be starting to clear as you are reading this during International Telecoms Week (ITW) is an article with one of those “How could he be so wrong?” statements. Yes, it’s by me, written in the 1990s for a telecoms magazine (sorry, can’t remember which one) about the innovations the cable TV industry would bring to the world.

This was when the cable TV industry’s only innovation had been more and more TV: movies, MTV, and round-the-clock news and sport. In Europe, that meant we were no longer limited to three or four channels (or, right into the late 1980s one, if you were Danish). In North America, it meant you could watch TV without the fading and snow that nearly obliterated many people’s pictures.

There was also this new thing called email. (Well, new as a consumer product. I was a bit of an early adopter, having in 1985 got a dial-up email system called Telecom Gold, BT’s rebranding of Dialcom from the US. I used a keyboard with a scrolling screen that had a single line 80 characters long, and it was connected via an acoustic coupler, which snugly held a regular landline phone. As a bonus, you could send telex messages to people without email. I recall writing a column for Computing Magazine. I wrote it on a train trip to visit a computer company west of London and borrowed one of their phones to whizz it into the office telex machine. Even they were impressed.)

Love affair

By the 1990s, my academic friends had been using email for years. One, a scientist, had been using her account to conduct an intercontinental love affair, until she discovered her lover got his secretary to print out all his messages.

I connected properly to the internet in 1995 with the arrival of Windows 95 from Microsoft, via a modem that worked at 14.4kbps.

My embarrassingly wrong 1990s article was about an innovation called DOCSIS, a contrived acronym for “data over cable service interface specification”. When DOCSIS 1.0 arrived om 1997, it could deliver data at 40Mbps, but in those pre-release days people were modestly hoping for 1Mbps.

That, coincidentally, was also the speed at which TV engineers were aiming at for MPEG2 digitally compressed signals, and the speed that telecoms equipment companies were aiming at for asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) services to carry digital signals down copper lines that were just about able to deliver 3kHz voice signals. It really was clever.

On the beach

Back in the 1990s, 1Mbps was the future. It was going to be the blazingly hot superhighway that would deliver education, entertainment and education to our homes and allow us to work from anywhere. Even, as Peter Large, one of my technology journalist contemporaries dreamed in his book, the Micro Revolution, while walking along a beach near his holiday home.

I was pleased by that advance briefing about DOCSIS, the technology that would soon deliver 1Mbps into my home. No one – no one – could think of any need for speeds into the home any faster than that, I blithely wrote in the resulting article, now hidden away in the archives of whatever magazine it was, and in the carbon copy of the daisywheel-printed typescript in my garage at home.

I’m still waiting for that DOCSIS connection. When we moved into our house in 1989, just as Eastern Europe was turning away from oppression to democracy, I contacted BT to install two extra phone lines – one for a work phone and one for a fax line – in addition to the residential line we’d taken over. They did it, remarkably quickly.

But I also contacted Michael Storey, then head of corporate affairs at Vidéotron, the company with the cable TV franchise for our area – it was based just down the road and the satellite dishes are still on the roof. I wanted to know when his Canadian-owned company would be installing cable, so I could plan what I needed to work from home.

“Next year,” said Storey, who was famous for puffing on giant cigars long after smoking in offices was illegal. A year later he said the same. And the year after that. He eventually moved on MFS, Worldcom and finally Inmarsat, of which he was chief executive.

Virgin Media, into which Vidéotron disappeared and which now runs that network operations centre, still hasn’t installed cable down my street. If it had, I’d be using, what’s the latest version?, DOCSIS 4.0, offering up to 10Gbps downstream.

Fat chance. Openreach, bless them, does fibre-to-the-cabinet, which might well be blazingly hot at the actual cabinet, but that is 200m down the road. And, as I’ve already said, from there to my home is the copper line that I watched being installed when we moved in. So, the digital superhighway revolution has continued to elude me.

So, I’m off. In fact, by the time you read this, I’ll have gone. I won’t be at ITW this year, because I’ll be 72 in late May, and I’ve decided to take not-quite-so-early retirement. I need to sort out those three decades of clutter so we can move. Maybe to somewhere with blazingly fast broadband.

I can dream, can’t I?

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