Broadband: The Worldwide Wait is Over
Streaming Magazine, April 2000

John Silliman Dodge

It's an "Aha moment." The first time you see full-motion video, hear CD-quality streaming audio, see images appear instantly upon clicking and watch downloads happen in seconds, you know this is the way the Web was meant to be. Question is, will the majority of Americans fork over $40+ a month for speedy downloads and always-on access? Will fat pipes cause a frenzy of new content creation, which in turn will create demand for even greater bandwidth? The big cable operators and telcos are betting billions that two-way broadband communications will change everything. I agree. The Worldwide Wait is over. Buckle up 'cause we're in for a fast ride.

Today there's a real digital divide. People who have broadband service say they will never go back to dial-up. Ever. Those who haven't experienced it wonder what the fuss is all about. For dial-uppers everywhere, let's pose these questions...

Ever clicked away rather than wait forever for graphic-rich web pages, for software plug-ins or for music to download? Ever listened to web radio at 22 Kbps? Ever watched video at 56K? Ever not logged on at all because it was too much trouble to go through the whole screechy process? Ever gotten a busy signal? Ever gotten kicked off the web on Sunday night? These issues and more simply disappear in the wide, wonderful world of broadband.

Definition of broadband-

Broadband can be defined as high-speed Internet access of over 200 kilobits per second that enables users to receive and send high quality voice, data, graphics, audio and video. This is the low end of performance as defined by the FCC, roughly 4 times the data rate of today's 56K modem standard. At 200 Kbps web pages change quickly, music streams smoothly and we can transmit full motion video, although imperfectly. The main selling point of broadband is speed. But the true advantage is it's always-on state. Taken together, this one-two punch has the power to jumpstart the next generation of interactive services.

Types of delivery-

Broadband services are delivered via four different transport mechanisms—cable modem, DSL, satellite and wireless. Each has its benefits and issues. In the end, what service you get may depend more on where you live than which mode of delivery you prefer. Not all services are available everywhere...yet.

Cable modem-

By installing a special modem into your PC and connecting it to the same cable that provides TV service to your home, you can achieve incoming, or downstream speeds averaging 2-3 megabits per second. That's a performance increase of roughly 50 times over your 56K modem. The transport's potential speed is faster still, somewhere between 10 and 25 Mbps. Outbound, or upstream data rates can reach up to 2 Mbps. The catch with cable is that it's a shared medium. If the entire neighborhood is cable-wired and everyone downloads "American Beauty" at the same time, performance will suffer. In fact, cable modem's success may be its downfall as more users sign on and consume more bandwidth. The real culprits are the bandwidth hogs, those 5% of cable customers who suck up 75% of the capacity by streaming out driveway cams and the like. Large cable operators include AT&T (who bought TCI), Cablevision, Comcast, Excite @Home and the one to watch, Time Warner, soon to be AOL Time Warner.

Let's test a real-world cable modem scenario. This information is courtesy of Mike Ross, a senior engineer in San Antonio and my go-to guy for all matters technical.

"We have the Road Runner cable modem service at home, which is a joint venture with Time Warner Cable Systems. The advertising claims 2 Mbps downstream and 384 Kbps upstream. I tested the downstream claim by running various speed tests. First, I performed a local test within the Road Runner network during the evening "primetime" .The test works by timing how long it takes to download a text file of known size. I ran nine trials clearing the cache between each trial. The local speed far exceeded the claims. The minimum speed was 1.86 Mbps, the maximum was 4.34 Mbps, and the mean was 3.16 Mbps.

OK, so the local network is screaming fast, but just how fast is it to the broader Internet? This time I ran the speed test on MSN Computing Central. http://www.computingcentral.com/topics/bandwidth/speedtest.asp
In eight trials, clearing the cache between each trial, the minimum was 413 Kbps, the maximum was 4.08 Mbps, and the mean was 2.06 Mbps.

These results jive with my observations when downloading files in excess of 4 Meg. I typically see at least 800 Kbps and have seen up to 2.2 Mbps. I do not have a good way to test the upstream performance, however I have transferred some large files to the office and it was pretty quick. Time of day seems to be the only factor affecting performance, but I think the slowdown is more due to traffic on the Internet than the local network. Most of the slowdown seems to be due to increased latency rather than reduced bandwidth.

On the whole, I have been thrilled with the Road Runner service. I get better than T1 download speeds and it just seems to get faster all the time as they tweak the network and the routing. The current monthly charge in San Antonio is $44.95 for cable subscribers, $57.95 if you don't have cable TV service. They provide the cable modem, up to five e-mail addresses, and there are no additional ISP charges. The setup charge ranges from $49.95 for a self-install up to $159.95 if they provide and install a PCMCIA NIC for you in a laptop. The pricing is month-to-month, no long-term commitment. Overall, I think it's well worth the price, especially when you consider the combined cost of a second phone line and ISP charges."

DSL-

DSL stands for digital subscriber line, sometimes referred to as ADSL. The A stands for asynchronous, meaning the upstream and downstream data rates can vary significantly, as most of today's services do. This delivery method comes from the phone company and rides on the twisted pair that comes into your home. Unlike your in-laws, this twisted pair refers to traditional copper telephone wires wrapped around one another to reduce crosstalk. Maximum downstream speeds reach up to 10 Mbps while upstream speeds range up to 700 Kbps. Like your telephone, the line is a dedicated circuit from the telco to you and back. And by using frequencies that aren't required by voice, all data can coexist on one phone line. You can surf the Web and talk on the phone at the same time, eliminating the need for a second line. The catch with DSL is that to qualify for service homes must generally be within 18,000 feet of a phone company's central office. Providers include all the regional Bell operating companies such as US West, Bell Atlantic and the largest RBOC, SBC.

In San Antonio again, SBC claims up to 1.5 Mbps downloads and guarantees 384 Kbps. The upload claim is 128 Kbps. They are currently offering a promotion for $39.95 per month, including installation, modem, and ISP, with a one year commitment. In Seattle, US West offers a 256 Kbps service, 5 times faster than a 56K dial-up connection for $37.90 per month when it's bundled with their ISP service.

Satellite-

DirectPC (part of the AOL family) currently offers satellite-based net access with a downstream speed of approximately 400 Kbps and a standard dial-up telephone line for the upstream path of about 40 Kbps. All the low-bandwidth, outbound information is sent out by modem over a phone line. All the high-bandwidth responses from the Internet are returned to the PC via satellite. In one DirecPC package, 100 hours a month cost $50 including Internet service.

The company to watch in this space is Teledesic in Bellevue, Washington. Headed by Craig McCaw and backed by Bill Gates, Teledesic intends to launch a necklace of 288 satellites into low earth orbit that will provide coverage to 100% of the world's population. 2004 is their target date for service. This “Internet in the Sky” is designed to support millions of simultaneous users. Using "standard" equipment, most users will have two-way connections that provide up to 64 Mbps downstream and up to 2 Mbps upstream. Higher-speed terminals will offer 64 Mbps or greater of two-way capacity. This is real speed—64 Mbps represents access speeds more than 2,000 times faster than today's standard analog modems.

The future of the Web is literally up in the air. All ground-based networks have inherent technical limitations which can be trumped by the superior performance and reach of satellite communications. And we're not just talking Internet. While we fizz about the rich media capabilities of the Web, the vast majority of the world's population has yet to make a phone call. Satellite communications can bootstrap the developing nations into the 21st century by removing the onerous requirement to string wires and lay pipes.

Wireless-

The new phone is a Web-enabled mobile terminal. Ditto for Palm-style hand-held devices. And there's the Ricochet wireless modem for your laptop. The parent company, Metricom plans to launch its Ricochet 128 kbps wireless modem service in twelve major markets by the end of this summer. If you prefer you can use your Sprint PCS Wireless Web phone in place of a modem. The idea is to get your mobile to connect with your Palm which connects with your laptop so you are truly on call 100% of the time. But the way things are evolving, your phone may be the only communication device you need.

The wildcard amongst the land-based systems is fixed wireless broadband, which is emerging as a legitimate platform for the delivery of high-quality data, video and voice services. And there's much promise in multi-megabit wireless connectivity that claims to offer greater bandwidth than either DSL or cable modem. Like their cable competitors, wireless operators are increasingly using their spectrum to offer high-speed Internet services. Just like wired cable, they can support upwards of 27 Mbps of downstream data. Historically, a telephone-return path has been used for upstream communication, but operators are now transitioning to full two-way wireless delivery.

Wireless cable technology has limitations, but it also has key benefits, most notably, no need to bury new lines or optical fiber. Just install a head-end and transmission tower and you're open for business. The technology received a major endorsement a year ago when Sprint and MCI WorldCom purchased three wireless operators for more than $1 billion to build a broadband wireless local loop. And in a sure sign there's money to be made, the FCC auctions of fixed wireless spectrum have already fetched hundreds of millions of dollars. Fixed terrestrial wireless services will certainly take a segment of the broadband market. Just how well this method competes with cable, DSL and satellite remains to be seen. Besides the big names mentioned above, companies to watch include Qualcomm, Nokia and Japan's NTT DoCoMo.

Penetration and Projection-

Let's start with the Internet. Five years ago less than 1% of US households were online. Today fully one-third are. It took radio 38 years, telephone 36 years, television 13 years and cable television 10 years to achieve these levels of penetration. When you observe how quickly the net has caught on, particularly considering the annoyances caused by pokey dial-up connections, it's obvious that we have a hit new medium on our hands.

Today, fewer than 2 million Internet users are using broadband services, a figure that represents less than 3% of all users in North America. Kinetic Strategies Inc. estimated cable modem service was commercially available to more than 40 million homes in North America by December 1999 and that cable operators had landed more than 1.5 million subscribers. Looking forward, Forrester Research projects that by 2003, cable and DSL together will capture 36% of on-line households. Around that time the trend lines will cross, with numbers of broadband users trending up and dial-up users trending down.

Cable modems have a two-year head start on DSL but projections show that the number of DSL users will surpass those of cable modems within the next year or so. It's a horse race to your checkbook and everyone's marketing machinery is cranked up full. In just one example, SBC intends to offer DSL to 80% of their customers by the end of 2002. In their most aggressive move yet, they've made a $6B investment in DSL called Project Pronto. Both cable and telcos are testing the waters with a wide variety of pricing, features and bundled services aimed at different market segments.

Speed Table (remember, tomorrow's performance will be superior to today's)—

Connection: Downstream speed:
Average analog dial-up 56 Kbps
ISDN 128 Kbps
Satellite 400 Kbps (capable of 64 Mbps)
DSL Up to 1.5 Mbps
Cable modem 3 Mbps
T1 line 1.5 Mbps
T3 line 45 Mbps

There are three forces driving today's broadband build out:

Convergence— as the pipe fattens and data rates increase, more music, photos, dense motion graphics and film/video will be digitized and distributed via the Internet. More existing Big Media assets will be repurposed, resulting in a Web experience that's more TV-like. Only now the experience will come with interactive clickables, navigational buttons that open new windows where you can learn more about the show, the writers, see pix of the stars, buy the clothes, download the coupons, lease the car, win the vacation. You can chat, interact, play games, vote, a million alternatives. Or you can simply lay back and occupy the couch. Background or foreground. Your choice. And convergence isn't convergence in the earlier sense of the term—your collection of media devices will not morph into one all-purpose box. If fact we're seeing the opposite, a divergence toward information appliances that do one or two things exceptionally well. But independent of the device or platform, the Web will become the transmission medium of choice.

Commerce— today consumers and businesses have unprecedented access to information and resources. The buyer has never been in a better position and the transformation caused by this shift of power has only just begun. Studies show that people with high-speed access search for information and make purchases at double the rate of their low-speed brethren. The continuing spread of online stores, auction sites, electronic trading systems and other virtual markets will only increase the demand for robust telecommunications networks. Bandwidth begets more bandwidth and speeds us toward critical mass.

Competition— cable got a head start and maintains the early lead. And today cable modem service is generally cheaper and faster. The telcos had the broadband solution in hand and could have rolled out DSL three years ago. But they didn't, perhaps to protect their more lucrative ISDN service. Whatever the reason, expect DSL to catch up. Eventually the two services will be competitive across the board and will meet the demand for broadband, at least until satellite takes over. The largest driver for subscriptions will be the convenience and price savings of bundling, the packaging of multiple communication services into one monthly bill. Phone, cellular service, DSL, and ISP. Or digital cable, broadband and ISP. Each of these services costs more if purchased separately, but bundled together they create a better value. Think Microsoft Office. If you can buy five services for the price of three you'll do it, even though you may have no need for the other two. No present need, that is...

The decade ahead-

Broadband will be a boon to independent content providers and Big Media alike. The frenzy of application creation that we've seen to date pales in comparison to what's coming next. Expect a creative renaissance. As with today's Internet, some of the business models are less than clear but the big brands have the infrastructure and the depth of resources to hang in for the long haul. How long?

Paul Saffo of the Institute of the Future says, "Never mistake a clear vision for a short distance." Full broadband penetration may take longer than we think. But whether it happens in 2002, 2004 or 2007, it's inevitable. And when it finally happens it'll be bigger than we can imagine and change society in ways we can't possibly conceive.

Picture a world where everything is interconnected. Schools, universities, hospitals, businesses, research centers, libraries, concert halls, recording studios, museums, entertainment factories, social circles, our own homes. We can stroll through the rich diversity of the global village on a whim and a click. This "death of distance" gives us the ability to extend ourselves far beyond our physical capacities. We can buy, sell, create, collaborate, communicate. Is this cyber experience as good as reality? Of course it isn't. But given the choice I'll take a virtual walk on the moon versus no walk at all.

Fast, cheap, always on, everywhere. The Web the way it should be. See you there.