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No bandwidth broad enough

Richard Adler, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. | Nov. 12, 2014
Our ability to communicate across distance continues to improve, but will being online ever be equivalent to being there? Should it be?

Because of the power of these games, they have attracted the attention of a number of scholars and researchers who have reached some interesting conclusions about their impact. For example, a survey by Zaheer Hussain of the University of Derby in the U.K. found that one-fifth of MMORG players said that they preferred socializing online to offline. In her book Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle of MIT reports that exploring different roles in online games can help some players expand their emotional range. And John Seely Brown, former director of Xerox PARC, has argued that participating in MMORPGs can help players develop the complex social skills that make them more valuable employees.

Within the business world, a wide range of new, more powerful tools and technologies have emerged to help groups of people connect and collaborate with one another. At the high end, videoconferencing has evolved into "telepresence" that typically makes use of paired sets of rooms with large high-resolution video screens and high-quality stereophonic audio to simulate the experience of meeting in person. Not surprisingly, these rooms require elaborate equipment and very-high-bandwidth connections. Telepresence networks also need to have very low latency (delay) in order to eliminate audio and video delays (delays of even a few milliseconds can break the sense of a real-time conversation).

One thing is for certain: As there is more convergence and competition among once traditional video, voice, and Internet services, and as new services like telepresence emerge, we will need more modern communications laws that do not subject these innovations to outdated regulatory silos that could stifle their growth.

Have we reached the telecom-transportation tradeoff?
Clearly, we now have many more options for communicating electronically with others. And the increase in physical bandwidth has almost certainly led to an increase in "emotional bandwidth" that lets us connect in richer, more satisfying ways. Yet despite all improvements in digital communications -- or because of it -- the desire for people to meet in person is apparently greater than ever. The truth of this hits me every time I go to an airport and see planes full of people regularly arriving from and departing to everyplace.

In fact, the increase in air travel has kept pace with improvements in communications. In 1950, a total of just 31 million people flew on commercial airlines globally. By 1986, the number of air passengers worldwide had reached a billion; by 2004 the number was 2 billion, and in 2014, more than 3 billion people will fly commercially. And as international travel has expanded, so has the total number of miles flown, growing from 17.4 billion passenger miles in 1950 to 3.4 trillion in 2012, due in part to a large increase in international travel.


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