Superhighway may only create more super-hype

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 September, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 September, 1994, 12:00am

A LUNCHEON at the Foreign Correspondents' Club and an office opening on Canton Road may not appear, at first glance, as places for in-depth discussion of the much-touted information superhighway.

But, at a media luncheon sponsored by Wavefront, which makes high-end animation software, and the opening of Texas Instruments' new office space in Tsim Sha Tsui, the talk inevitably slid towards this buzzword.

Interesting, though, is the consensus: the information superhighway, as it is being sold by the politicians and the mass media on the other side of the Pacific, has little in common with anything that exists.

With the exception of the Internet, there is nothing even close to a pervasive, high-bandwidth, information superhighway with large chunks of video, data, voice, and images flying around the world between computers.

Also, the Internet is short on the bandwidth needed to handle this type of communication and the technology at the receiving end, on most desktops, usually cannot handle this kind of volume either.

As one executive at Wavefront pointed out, one frame of broadcast television takes up 1.2 megabytes of storage space. Given the bandwidth available to most Internet users, it would be impractical to regularly use the existing infrastructure to move video, and it most certainly could never be done in real time.

So what does this mean? It feels vastly like a company that is selling a product it cannot deliver for at least another five years, if not a decade. But this time it is a government making the promise and not a company, and the same market forces cannot come to bear.

So, is there any chance for the superhighway to exist in the form being promised? The reality is that to move video you need bandwidth in the order of hundreds of megabits, at least 10 times wider than most existing local area networks and across most shared communications lines this is not feasible.

Sure, in the United States the cable companies have networks that can move the kind of data that are being talked about, and they are dreaming of diving into the information superhighway at a commercial level.

But, as the Internet is founded on free access to ideas, so, ultimately, will be the future information superhighway, and therein lies the dilemma: Is it safe to expect that cable companies will give up existing bandwidth that generates revenue now to engage in an undertaking that may not generate revenue for some time? Likewise, can we expect these businesses to use newly installed bandwidth for an information superhighway? Maybe not, unfortunately. If any of the talked about experiments with super-wide bandwidth technology are examples, we can expect simply hundreds more stations with video on demand and home shopping. Not truly interactive and hardly informing.

This begs the question: are there any examples of the potential of an information superhighway? Actually, there are.

Siggraph '95 may provide an example of the potential use of a highway.

Siggraph is the leading graphics and animation trade show, and plans in the work for the 1995 event provide a glimpse of the future.

'In Siggraph '95 we're planning on having a one-gigabit-per-second fibre infrastructure in the Los Angeles Convention Centre,' the '95 show's co-chairman, Peter Meechan, said.

This infrastructure will be connected to the Internet via satellite to Paris. The plan is to use this connection to conduct interactive, two-way collaborative education and entertainment projects.

In other words, an interactive game may be built by a development team split by the Atlantic ocean and the breadth of the North American continent.

This certainly represents the potential but how many of us can attend Siggraph, let alone design an interactive game? AN interesting example of the less-than-perfect world of on-line hi-tech comes in reports from the US about a video conference between US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and students around the world.

There was one glitch, though: after Mr Brown's talk, the sound failed to work for the interactive two-way conference.