Let Them Eat 56K
I have become Marie Antoinette when it comes to Internet access. Well
about cake, and I certainly don't consider my friends peasants, but I've
suddenly realized how many of them, and my family members, are still dialing
up for Internet access. I've heard myself saying things like, "56K?
Too slow! I won't bother checking the movie timeswe'll just take a chance
that there's a 3:00 PM matinee."
For, you see, I have a cable modem, and life is good. I know I'm in
trouble when I get impatient with the "snail's pace" of the
office's shared T1 connection. My name is Tracey and I have a problem: I have
become a bandwidth snob. Like a properly indoctrinated devotee, I preach the
benefits of home broadband to anyone who will listen. It's not hard. My
parents are planning a trip to Europe at the end of 2002. Once a month,
they come over bearing dinner in the form of a roast chicken or a casserole.
Though my parents love me, this is actually a clever ploy. What they really
want is my high-speed Internet access to check flight prices, look at hotel
Web sites, examine menus at restaurants in Budapest or look at train times
from Venice to Vienna. I'm ruthless. I remind them that with their own cable
modem, they could research which restaurant has the best Wienerschnitzel in
Austria any time they want. They could even join the Online Wienerschnitzel
Appreciation Chat Forum, if they wished.
While watching a movie at home with friends recently, I called up the
Internet Movie Database to provide an answer to that
perennial question, "What other film have I seen that actor in?" I
had the answer -- complete with a photo, birth date and a biography of the
thespian in question -- within 12
seconds. My friends gaped in awe. They marveled at the lack of screeching modem
dial-up noises. Waves of broadband envy permeated my living room.
I am one of only 11 or 13 percent of Americans (according to Cahner's
InStat and Forbes magazine, respectively; take your pick) that has linked my
home to broadband services. While estimates run between 53 to 58 percent of
Americans having some type of connection to the Internet, only about 18
percent of these connections are broadband. Though the pipes are there in
most cases, the industry is having a hard time overcoming what they refer to
as "the last mile" the distance between their pipes and the back
of your computer. As the old adage might go (if I mangled it a bit), you can
lead a consumer to broadband, but you can't make him install a cable modem.
This, plus the partial failure of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- which among other things strong-armed the regional Baby Bells (Regional Bell
Operating Companies, or RBOCs) into opening their networks to up-and-coming
CLECs (Competitive Local Exchange Carriers), many of which have subsequently
gone bust -- has kept household broadband consumption's growth rates
unimpressive. Not even the perceived convenience of bundled services (one
rate and bill for television, phone and Internet access) that can be offered
by some providers has been enough to usher in the kind of growth imagined
(and hoped for) by the industry in the mid-1990s. This may change if
Congress can see fit to pass last year's proposed Tauzin-Dingell bill,
otherwise known as the Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act of
2001, which would allow the RBOCs to provide customers with broadband
services across long-distance borders that were formerly (and to date, still
are) unbreachable by regulatory laws. For more information about this bill, read
the excellent column "Broadband
Deregulation, In The Name Of Choice" written by my colleague Laura Guevin.
If the growth rates for home cable and DSL subscriptions have remained
sluggish, satellite and wireless broadband service subscriptions are barely
creeping along, probably due to their not inconsiderable cost, their dicey
reliability due to the constraints of physics and the ever-present lack of
standardization for these technologies.
The increased penetration of home broadband will directly affect certain
other markets, as well. IP media servers and storage, for streaming, can
only grow as fast as the demand and the means to deliver it. Streaming audio
and video have often been cited as a top use of home broadband (much to the
chagrin of the entertainment industry, I am certain. It's a lawyer's love call to Sony and the Recording Industry Association of America and their
battalions of high-priced and paid-to-be-indignant attorneys.).
Internet radio, in particular, is an industry whose growth is very
dependent on home broadband access. Why only at home? Try streaming a
long-distance radio station on your computer
at work and start a stopwatch. If it takes your MIS department more than ten
minutes to call you and kindly but firmly request that you cease and desist
hogging the company pipes, it would surprise me. Above and beyond streaming
Internet radio at home, or even via PDA or cell phone, is another market
which has been dancing on the horizon for some time satellite and Internet
radio for the car. (It' s unlikely that anyone resistant to installing
broadband at home would consider it for the car.) In any case, consumers
might never have a choice. The U.S. government has been toying with the
imposition of fees (for copyright purposes) on radio stations that broadcast
via the Internet, which may nip the technology in the bud for a good long
time. (Somehow, I can't help wondering if Metallica, eagerly clutching the
death certificate of Napster in its collective sweaty palm, is partially
behind this one.)
Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that the U.S. government needs to make
up its mind... does it want to promote consumer broadband access? Or will it
call for all American consumers to be able to attain high-speed Internet
connections, only to regulate the content delivered via broadband to such an
extend that the content providers cannot afford to offer it? What would that
leave us with? The ability to have a real-time face-to-face chat via Web cam
with our seldom-seen cousins? I love my cousins, but I don't want them
cybernetically lurking around my living room every night.
After all, I've already got my parents sitting around surfing for
Metallica fans angry at how often the author takes swipes at their
favorite band may flame her at firstname.lastname@example.org.