End of the Broadband Revolution?

For a long time, we were told it was coming. Soon we would be gliding across the Internet at warp speed. We’d be downloading crisp video on demand, seamlessly streaming television and radio broadcasts. High-quality teleconferencing would make traveling to business meetings a thing of the past.

A broadband Internet would do that and so much more, the story went. It would eliminate interminable downloads and make Web pages dance and sing and spin about in technical glory. But guess what? Broadband is here, and already there are signs that the savior we held our breath for isn’t going to transform the Web into Nirvana overnight. In fact, the broadband revolution could very well end with a whimper.

Bigger in Texas

Now, it’s obvious to anyone that broadband connections — be they digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable — are preferable to their slower dial-up cousins, with their high-pitch bleating and unpredictable disconnects. Remember when the 56K modem was supposed to make everyone’s online life faster and easier? Broadband carried boatloads more promise. It would be ten times, a hundred times faster, we were told.

So far, broadband hasn’t lived up to all the hype. Take the case of a group of Houston, Texas Internet users who filed suit against SBC Communications, Inc. (SBC). They claim that SBC intentionally slowed down some areas of its high-speed network — namely in the realm of e-mail servers and newsgroups. The suit claims that the connections for those services are one-third of the promised 384 Kbps.

There is a certain amount of whining going on here — the plaintiffs in the case are a business owner, his employees and some friends. But SBC’s response is very telling. The company pointed out that its promised speeds only cover the connection between a user’s computer and the SBC office. What happens when users call up Web pages on some remote server is out of its hands.

Turtles Across the Pond

Meanwhile, many a UK Internet user is in for the same kind of rude awakening. British Telecom (BT) recently unveiled its own DSL service with promises of Web pages that zoom and all the rest. According to a BBC (British Broadcasting Company) report, BT now admits that because up to 50 people will be using a single DSL pipeline at a time, things could get gummy.

One solution would be to cut down on the sharing, but that would drive up the cost, probably putting it out of reach of most casual users.

Then there’s the other end of the online transaction. The Web site you’re blasting your way toward on a broadband wave might be well-designed and ready to load in the blink of an eye. Or maybe not. Sites cramming audio, video and flash productions worthy of the opening credits of a Spielberg flick are jumping the gun by a quite a bit. A little bit of congestion between me and that page, a few extra flickers of buffering, and I’m clicking elsewhere.

There is a long-held belief that Web pages that take eight seconds or longer to load are ignored by impatient surfers. Zona Research noted recently that the eight second rule applies only to dial-up users who are already resigned to sluggish surfing. Users who accept the fact that their Internet is a bit of a turtle.

Sonic Booms

Broadband users don’t want turtle. They don’t want hare. They don’t even want cheetah. What they want — what they have been convinced by advertising and the power of suggestion to expect — is a rocket-powered car cruising across the Bonneville Salt Flats at Mach 2.

It’s no wonder Web surfers have such lofty, unrealistic expectations of broadband technology. They waited patiently for it to arrive and are paying more each month for the privilege of high-speed. But where’s all the bada-bing, bada-boom?

There are many factors at play here, to be sure. A computer with a wimpy processor or sporting the bare minimum of RAM wouldn’t deliver great performance even if the Alaska Pipeline were hooked up to the back. But the bottom line is that perception and reality are two very different things when it comes to broadband.

Instant Gratification

Again, there is massive improvement. Cable connections beat dial-up, and DSL can blow away cable modems. But the problem for the Internet as a whole is that the broadband Web doesn’t merely need to be faster.

Broadband needs to be a lot faster, a lot better, a lot flashier, and a lot easier. It needs to open the gate to a whole new Internet experience that provides a revolutionary twist on what has so quickly become too familiar. But there is no solid evidence that broadband will live up to its hype-generated promise anytime soon.

No wonder everyone is so hell-bent on the wireless Web.

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