January 17, 2019

The old brand new

AT&T CEO John Donovan recently announced that, going forward, DirecTV would be transitioning from satellite transmission to streaming technology for content distribution. In other words, depending less on outer space and more on wires hanging from telephone poles.

To be sure, in large swaths of the United States and the world, there are still no viable alternatives to satellite content delivery. But like a medieval circle of fate, technology is always circling around to where it began. The old becomes brand new again.

In terms of the large-scale infrastructure, the communications satellite was a simpler solution than the microwave relay stations that once dotted the land. In turn, those relay stations were a vast improvement over the copper wire telephone circuits they replaced.

Fiber optic cable wiped out the microwave towers and may soon do in the communications satellites.

Like the transistor, vacuum tube electronics, and the internal combustion engine, the amazing thing about television satellite service is that it works at all, let alone that it can be mass-produced as a consumer good.

A communications satellite orbits 22,236 miles above the equator, a tenth of the way to the Moon. And yet it beams a signal down to the Earth's surface that can be scooped up with an eighteen-inch dish on your roof and decompressed into 500 channels.

When I first got Dish, I was impressed at how "clean" the picture was. Completely static free. These days, it's ho-hum compared to free over-the-air HDTV.

OTA HDTV breathed new life into the old UHF broadcast spectrum. 5G networks promise to steal that precious "last mile" connection to the home away from fiber and cable.

Google's foray into the home Internet business ran into the buzz saw of regulatory capture, which lets cable cartels box out the competition. So Microsoft is going wireless instead, much as the smartphone leapfrogged the landline in the developing world.

The Microsoft Airband Initiative launched in July 2017 with the goal of working with partners to make broadband available to 2 million Americans in rural communities who lack access today and to help catalyze an ecosystem to connect millions more.

Radio really is all the rage these days. Smartphones are just smart radios operating at UHF frequencies. That microwave relay technology that got passed over by the telecommunications satellite and then buried by fiber optics? It didn't go away. It mutated.

Back in 2016, Ars Technica reported that some of those old microwave towers are being repurposed to augment fiber optic networks. Because it's cheaper than laying brand new fiber and because radio signals move through the air faster than light through fiber.

And let's not too hastily write off satellites either. Elon Musk plans to tackle the latency problem of satellite-based Internet service with a swarm of satellites in low Earth orbit (such that at end-of-life they'll simply burn up in the atmosphere).

Every time you turn around, another moribund technology is "not dead yet." The solid-state disc drive should have sent old-fashioned "spinning rust" into retirement. Except every time it's knocked to the canvas, the hard disk drive staggers back to its feet like Rocky Balboa.


For example, Seagate has successfully prototyped a 16TB HDD using HAMR (Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording). The heat comes from a laser diode attached to the read/write head. Western Digital answered that challenge with a 16TB MAMR HDD (Microwave Assisted Magnetic Recording).

In the steampunk space opera future I like to imagine, the only way to build a faster-than-light starship engine will be with old-fashioned vacuum tubes and analog circuitry. And thus technology from the 1930s will end up being the most modern thing ever.

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