The word “digital” is firmly entrenched as part of today’s modern lexicon when describing and defining how we communicate. Our geographic positioning services (GPS) are digital. Most of the radios in today’s cars are digital. The compact discs (assuming anyone still uses them) that we store movies and audio recordings on are in a digital format. Our cable offerings offer digital services in competition with the likes of Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon. And yes, even the telephone or voice services that we get with our cable offerings transmit our voice calls via digital technology.
Unless we are nerdy Trekkies (apologies to my editor who is more of a Battlestar Galactica fan) or computer geeks, we’ve probably uttered the word digital more than looked it up in a dictionary. Just as important is how public policy will facilitate or impede the pace at which your broadband provider will be able to deploy the very digital facilities that provide the capacity to deliver the bundle of communications and video services households are increasingly taking for granted.
What do we mean by digital? Digital refers to any system based on discontinuous data or events, versus analog where the events are data are continuous. For example, we see and hear the world in analog. We can see a clock measure very tiny units of time when its hands rotate around its face. The same with sound, as we hear different gradations and variations in pitch and tone. Digital, using a system of “off” and “on” represented by “0” and “1” approximates what we discern in the analog world. Digital samples or copies the analog experience.
The primary advantage digital has over analog is the ability to transform analog information like sound and video into a format that can be easily stored and manipulated. This crucial advantage lies behind the ability of AT&T or Comcast to provide bundled packages of digital voice, high-speed Internet, and cable TV services at lower prices compared to a relatively higher priced a la carte packaging of analog voice, data, and video services.
Broadband companies are finding it more efficient to provide their digitized communications packages over what are referred to as Internet protocol or IP networks. The big advantage these networks provide is the ability to share bandwidth (capacity) with many users. This is possible because a connection between your residence or business does not have to be established before information is exchanged. Voice, data, and video information are sent via packets in IP networks, with each packet addressed to their final destination and can take a number of different paths to get to their destinations. This is the opposite of analog networks, where a connection must be established, i.e., establishing a dial tone, before information is sent, and that bandwidth must be reserved until a call is completed. Analog provides less efficient use of capacity, capacity that could be used for several activities on an IP network.
As consumers migrate to IP networks for their landline or mobile services, the issue being raised is what to do with old, legacy, analog networks. Broadband companies such as AT&T argue that maintaining two networks becomes increasingly burdensome and expensive, especially as more consumers abandon plain old telephone services networks for higher capacity IP network.
On November 7, 2012, AT&T petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to consider conducting trials where legacy equipment was retired and IP services are being offered. The purpose of the trials is to help ease the transition (and likely the concerns of the public and the FCC) to an all IP network.
It’s hard to see where allowing the trials to occur would have any negative impact on consumers especially where consumers have already made to decision to go IP and legacy equipment is not being used. It is a little more difficult to see the benefits of forcing phone companies to keep networks that don’t have as much capacity as IP networks and where prices should be increased to cover the increasing cost of consumers still stuck, due to public policy, in the 20th century.