Another dot in the blogosphere?

Time, volume, speed

Posted on: August 16, 2019

This scattered reflection comes courtesy of binge listens to thought-provoking podcasts like Pessimists Archive and No Such Thing As A Fish.

I started think about how Internet access has changed over my adult life. Specifically, how service providers charged for this utility then and now. This led me to a critique of an overused word — disruption.

When I first started going online, I needed a dialup modem and a phone line. This meant that I had to pay for a phone line subscription every quarter, a monthly Internet subscription, and a per-minute use of the Internet. The first two were fixed costs; the last could balloon every month. I call this time-based Internet access.

Such access is not as common nowadays but it still exists. Consider how public libraries, airports, or coffee joints still limit Internet or wifi access by time.

When I moved on to DSL, I still had to pay for a phone line but I also had to think about how much I might consume every month and at what bandwidth. Exceed that volume and I had to pay extra. This was volume-based Internet access.

While this might seem like an archaic concept, it is still common in mobile phone data plans. You get an upper limit every month. Exceed that limit and pay a premium for every unit volume, especially if you are overseas.

When I moved to cable — first copper, then fibre optic — I did not have to worry about volume limits. I only had to decide what bandwidth or Internet speeds I desired. This speed-based Internet access was like paying a fixed sum for an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The speed and bandwidth-based Internet access model seems the most reasonable now given the state of current technologies, i.e., broadband fibre optic cable in just about every home here. According to government statistics for Jan 2019, there were:

  • 3800 residential DSL connections
  • 106,900 residential cable connections
  • 1,260,300 residential fibre optic connections

Changes in residential wired broadband subscriptions.

What is the point of all these numbers?

Some might say that fibre optic access has disrupted the Internet access game. They seem to have a point if you consider the dominance of the speed-based model over the time and volume models.

However, the facts are that the three systems co-exist and that one did not lead to the evolution of the other. A newer method did not replace an earlier one. Fibre optics has not yet disrupted DSL — it provides access to the same Internet differently.

What has been disrupted is consumer expectations. It is not reasonable to pay for time and volume for wired Internet when you realise you can do so by speed with an all-you-can-eat subscription.

Technology did not really disrupt Internet access. We have far too many models and needs for that to happen. But it has helped change expectations. We expect fast and cheap; we know that anything else is living in the past and getting cheated.

I suspect that there is a similar disruption in expectations for education (not schooling). Similar in pattern, but not exactly mirroring. After all, education is not a utility, is much more complicated, and takes longer to change.

Simplified, people pursue their educations full-time, part-time, on-the-job, or lifelong. The circumstances under which different people do this is varied. However, they are like to share similar expectations, e.g., no/low cost, timely, meaningful, driven by utility.

The expectations vary by time. A full-time student might forego low cost for a few years, but will likely expect not to pay for on-the-job education. The same student might not see the utility or timeliness of a course, but will expect professional development to be provided when needed and useful immediately.

Any entity that claims to have disrupted, say, the higher education market is making a questionable claim. It might provide cheaper, quicker, or even more timely information, but it has not displaced lecture halls, tutorial rooms, and study areas. At best that entity can try to meet the needs of students at that stage — how long (time), how much (volume), how fast (speed).

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