Give my regards to broadband

High-speed access is great -- but it doesn't turn the Internet back into TV.


Scott Rosenberg
March 17, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

If you're looking for the most misunderstood, misrepresented, overused and abused buzzword right now, look no further than "broadband."

Broadband is hot. Broadband is where the industry is headed. Broadband is the future.

But, er, what is broadband, anyway?

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In popular parlance, broadband means speedy Internet access for consumers. Today that typically refers to high-speed cable-modem service through the same wire that delivers your cable TV programming or high-speed DSL access through your regular phone line. But broadband doesn't have to be accessed through these schemes; it's also possible to imagine broadband service via other means -- even, someday, broadband wireless service. If the medium gets lots of bits to you each second, it's broadband.

That solves one of the basic problems with home Internet access: Web pages and file downloads arrive at your computer faster, so you can stop bitching about the "world wide wait." But because broadband's speed makes audio and video content more readily accessible than it was with dial-up modems, broadband is sometimes, confusingly, used as a synonym for multimedia content -- and its advent has helped to reinvigorate the hoary concept of "interactive television." If it's got pictures and it's got sound -- and it's got the prefix "broad-" too! -- it must be like broadcast, right?

Well, no. There are so many myths and fallacies floating around out there about broadband that I thought it might be a public service to list them, and debunk them, all at once.

Myth Number One: Broadband is the same thing as "convergence"

"Convergence" is a somewhat outmoded buzzword that first arose to label the predicted merging of the home computer and the television set. The computer screen kind of looks like a TV set anyway. A lot of people are beginning to get their Internet connection through their TV cable. And who wants two devices when one could do the trick?

Three or four years ago, pundits fell over themselves predicting this convergence of devices; though they argued over whether it would take place in the living room or the study, they all agreed it would happen Real Soon Now. Some computer manufacturers (like Gateway) began producing monster hybrid TV/PCs. The Microsoft Network launched a wave of ill-conceived "Net Shows" in the belief that these TV-like Web sites were just what consumers craved.

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This convergence still hasn't happened -- but that hasn't stopped industry leaders from believing that it's inevitable. The arrival of broadband has given the convergence bandwagon a new lease on life, despite a continued absence of evidence that people actually want their PCs to behave like TVs or their TVs to be more like PCs.

In truth, divergence seems a much better word for what is happening today -- as Internet content begins to propagate itself onto all sorts of new "platforms" like cell phones and Palm Pilots. The chameleonic power of the Net's protocols seems to be multiplying, rather than reducing, the number of devices we might want to use to work and play online.

Myth Number Two: Broadband opens the door to a new wave of interactive entertainment

A lot of businesses are spending fortunes today on the assumption that as broadband Net access spreads, people will want to spend lots of their time online diverting themselves with what is described as "interactive entertainment."

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Now, I have no doubt that broadband makes the life of the computer gamer easier, and that the wizards of game development will find innovative and fascinating ways to take advantage of higher speeds and better graphics.

But the purveyors of "interactive entertainment" aren't talking about gaming. They're talking about -- well, about the same ill-defined stuff that the developers of "interactive TV" have been talking about for a decade: Chat live with other fans! Vote on how the plot line should move! Click on an actor's scarf to buy it!

These pseudo-interactive offerings never won people's hearts because they are motivated by technologists' desires to strut their new stuff and advertisers' hopes to harness that stuff for marketing purposes, rather than by any creative need or popular hunger. Yet the same experiments that didn't work when they were tried via CD-ROMs, on TV sets and in movie theaters (anyone remember the ill-fated Interfilm, with its pistol-grip controls?) are now being carted out onto the Net, with sometimes even paltrier promises.

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For example, this week Ford offered Net users the chance to "help create a Ford Focus commercial": "It's up to you to fill in the story line for each live broadcast." Wow! If we help create the ad spot, can we also get a cut of the ad agency's creative fees?

So, yes, broadband does open the door to this kind of "interactivity" -- but will any significant number of consumers step through it? I wouldn't count on it.

Myth Number Three: Broadband means that broadcasters will once again be on top online

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The media industry grew fat on the one-way relationship of the broadcast world: It provided and the mass audience received. The Internet threw that equation into doubt by making it possible for the mass audience to dissolve into a galaxy of individual media providers. So when media companies look at broadband and the multimedia technologies it enables -- in particular, streaming audio and video -- you can almost hear the collective "whew!" from thousands of overpaid executives. Broadband, they hope, means they can go back to the comfortable arrangement whereby they send out tons of "content" and millions of people pay to consume it.

There's only one problem with this scenario: There isn't an iota of evidence that real-world Internet users suddenly become couch potatoes once they hook up their cable modems or DSL lines. In fact, the reverse seems to be true: The people who are paying a premium today to wire their homes for high-speed Net access are typically the most technically adept users. They're often Internet professionals who don't bat an eye at paying the higher fees because the faster service makes them more productive. They're using the faster access to speed file downloads and weave Web services into their everyday lives. A lot of them want to run their own Web sites and Net companies from their homes.

When @Home first rolled out its service in Fremont, Calif., three years ago, it found that its network was being strained because many customers in that high-tech Silicon Valley suburb were using their new high-speed Net service to operate their own Web servers. The architecture of most cable networks (and a lot of "asymmetric" DSL schemes) allows for much more data flow "downstream" -- from the network to the user -- than back "upstream." @Home had assumed, mistakenly, that this was OK since home users would be more inclined to watch streaming video than to serve it.

This "problem" hasn't disappeared as the cable-modem industry has matured; in fact, a Wall Street Journal article this week chronicles the continued "problem" of cable-modem customers becoming "bandwidth hogs" and "abusers" in this fashion.

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Reading about this makes me want to grab the nearest cable CEO and holler, "These people aren't 'hogs' and 'abusers'! They're using the Internet the way it was intended! If you thought you could turn it into a one-way street, then sorry -- you're the problem."

But what about the "mass market"? Joe or Jane Public doesn't know how to configure a Web server, right? Surely, as broadband providers reach out to a wider public, they will find the passive audience they're looking for?

Don't bet on it. Running a server today certainly requires technical chops. But there's a whole wave of new software -- led by the controversial and wildly popular Napster -- that transforms the individual user's computer into a file server with little effort. And the trend toward Web-based applications -- which let you keep your calendar and back up your files across the Net -- can only increase the "upstream" flow. The Internet is a two-way street: Broadband providers need to get used to the fact.

Myth Number Four: Broadband solves all the Net's problems

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Internet users have been told for so long that their Web pages loaded slowly because their modems were pokey that they understandably often believe that installing cable modem or DSL service will instantly transform the entire Internet into their playground.

Broadband service does make a huge difference in how fast most Web sites arrive on your screen. But it alone can't guarantee a speedy Net experience. Even if you've wedded your fast line to a speedy processor on an up-to-date computer, the nature of the Internet itself ensures that you will still sometimes find yourself tapping your fingers waiting for a site to load.

There are many intermediate points between the Web site's server and your desktop, and a problem at any one of them can slow things down. Then there's the growing practice of "third-party ad servers" -- which mean that the advertisements on any one Web page may come from multiple separate points on the Net, and a problem with any one of them could hang up your browser. Finally, the very technical advances that broadband lets you enjoy -- whether it's streaming media or complex Web applications -- are still prone to bugs and glitches that will often slow or even crash your browser.

None of these myths is any reason to shun broadband if you're a serious Net user. I signed up for DSL service nearly a year ago and wouldn't dream of giving it up. But it hasn't changed my life or how I use the Net. It's a service improvement, not a revolution.

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Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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