Prime Time Is My Time14

The Topology of a Shrinking Planet

There are currently four electronic paths into the home: telephone, cable, satellite, and terrestrial broadcast. Their differences are more about topology than alternate economic models. If I want to deliver the same bit at the same time to every household in the continental United States, I should obviously use a single satellite whose footprint reaches from East to West Coast. This would be the most logical topology, versus, for example, sending that bit to every single one of the twenty-two thousand telephone exchanges in the United States.

By contrast, if I have regional news or advertising, terrestrial broadcast works well, and cable even better. Telephone works best for point to point. If I decide which medium to use based solely on topology, I would put the Super Bowl on satellite and an interactive, personalized version of "Wall Street Week" over the telephone network. The delivery path - satellite, terrestrial broadcast, cable, or telephone - can be decided in terms of which is best suited for which kind of bit.

But in the "real world," as people are fond of telling me (as if I live in an unreal world), each channel tries to increase its payload, often by using itself to do what it does least well.

For example, some operators of stationary satellites are considering land-based point-to-point network services. This really makes little sense, in comparison to a wired telephone network, unless you are in a place that is trying to overcome some special geographic or political obstacle, like an archipelago or censorship. Similarly, to send the Super Bowl down every terrestrial, cable, or telephone system is a hard way to get those bits to everybody at the same time.

Slowly but surely, bits will migrate to the proper channel at the proper time. If I want to see last year's Super Bowl, calling it up by telephone is the logical way to accomplish this (versus waiting for somebody to rebroadcast it). After the game, the Super Bowl is suddenly archival data and the suitable channel is very different from when it was "live."

Each delivery channel has its own anomalies. When delivering a message by satellite from New York to London, the distance traveled by the signal is only five miles longer than from New York to Newark by the same method. This suggests that maybe a telephone call within the footprint of a given satellite should cost the same, whether you are calling from Madison to Park Avenue or from Times Square to Picadilly Circus.

Fiber will force similar reconsideration of pricing bit delivery. When a single trunk carries bits between New York and Los Angeles, it is unclear if conveying them that long distance is more or less costly than shipping through the highly switched capillary system of a suburban telephone network.

Distance means less and less in the digital world. In fact, an Internet user is utterly oblivious to it. On the Internet, distance often seems to function in reverse. I frequently get faster replies from distant places than close ones because the time change allows people to answer while I sleep--so it feels closer.

When a delivery system that looks more like the Internet is used in the general world of entertainment, the planet becomes a single media machine. Homes equipped today with movable satellite dishes already get a taste for the wide range of programming, with no geopolitical boundaries. The problem is how to cope with it.

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Updated on May 14, 1996