There's broadband meat behind the drone delivery sizzle

4 December 2013 by Steve Blum
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Looks like someone ordered a barbeque.

Amazon’s PR people deserve a hearty round of applause. They dropped the perfect Cyber Monday story this Sunday evening when Jeff Bezos teased plans to build a fleet of drone helicopters that will deliver five pound packages in half an hour.

But assuming it has some remote connection to reality, the real news is what it implies about Amazon’s roadmap for expansion. Those drones are not supersonic. Even with zero time to process and pick an order, a half hour service radius of 50 kilometers would probably be an overly optimistic guess – Bezos talked about a 10 mile range. To cover a metro area, you’d need several large, well stocked, centrally located distribution centers. Which Amazon can build whether or not it resorts to drones.

In other words, Amazon is pushing its bricks and mortar presence closer to its customers, creating a physical version of a content delivery network. It’s a way of moving big box retailing into communities that have so far resisted it. Walmart has to locate its stores in places that shoppers can easily reach. Amazon, on the other hand, can put a distribution center in an industrial area where it would attract little, if any, opposition.

Such a facility would be powered by broadband. Orders, inventory, stock picking and delivery would all be managed and controlled electronically, of course. To attract a 21st century retail logistics center, industrial areas need the raw materials of the Internet: dark fiber and access to Tier 1 network nodes. That’s why California cities like San Leandro and Benicia are putting a particular emphasis on lighting up brownfield industrial properties.

Google might not be far behind, by the way. There’s already speculation that it will tie its robotic development program to its driverless car project, creating a fully automated ground delivery system. Chances of either drones or robots showing up at your door and asking you to sign for a package any time soon are slim, but slim is a huge improvement over none at all.