Growing pains won't slow the broadband revolution

The expansion of broadband is the most important thing to happen to the Internet since the Web browser, and it shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, the bandwidth explosion will change the way we use computers -- and the way we work.

What exactly does the future hold? So far, most of the discussion of broadband's future falls into one of three categories: infrastructure, services or wireless technologies.

Still hooking up

Of course, the broadband revolution will be driven as much by profit as by technology. Yet because we're not likely to see any governing bodies draft a universal broadband access policy (similar to the the policy that regulates the telephone system), you'll have to assume that many of your customers will still be connecting to the Internet with old-fashioned modems, at least for the foreseeable future.

There's no easy way out of this two-tier arrangement, and companies that overlook it when they develop their Web sites run the serious risk of alienating potential customers. In other words, don't forge ahead with your broadband plans without first considering the needs of the stragglers.

But many companies are already capitalising on broadband's ability to provide remote workers with Internet access that's as fast as the lines available at the home office. These companies are finding that broadband lets them bring together teams of highly talented professionals who happen to be geographically dispersed, letting them work as if they were in adjacent cubicles. That means an organisation is no longer confined to hiring within its immediate vicinity. As broadband gains a firmer foothold, you can expect more and more companies to go this route.

Cable modems and DSL lines look like the platforms for the time being, as complementary technologies, not competing ones.

At the moment, cable has a leg up on DSL because the infrastructure is already in place. After all, more and more communities have a cable TV system. That makes cable modems especially attractive in areas where DSL isn't available.

But DSL is beginning to make inroads. Some DSL providers are installing RTs (remote terminals) that can cover the wide swaths of land that lie beyond the reach of a central office. Until recently, DSLAMs (DSL Access Multiplexers) have not been rugged enough to deploy outside central offices, which has limited the range of territory (and therefore the number of customers) that they could serve.

In contrast, an RT can be placed in the field and wired back to the central office by fibre. This moves the starting point for the DSL portion of the connection closer to customers.

The bottom line is that both cable modems and DSL will reign supreme for quite some time. The trick now is to find ways of delivering it into the hands of those who can't otherwise get it.

At your service

A rewoven social fabric in the workplace is only one of many expected changes. Broadband technologies also change the way people use the Internet, because when they have broadband they have access to streaming media. Thus it should come as no surprise that many companies are exploring the business advantages of broadband's fatter pipes.

Online shopping, for example, could be revolutionised if today's tiny GIF images were transformed into full-motion, full-screen video clips. And the demand for broadband will always far outstrip the supply: The T3 line that's adequate for your site today may well have to be upgraded to an OC-48 in a few years.

But the race won't necessarily be won by the swiftest. Rather, the odds are with the companies that do the best job of providing high-quality service. As we move toward a world dominated by broadband, the allure of low-cost, high-speed access won't be attractive enough; customers will expect even more value for their money. That doesn't mean more games or slicker billing statements. It means assuming burdens that today belong to the subscriber.

One such burden is security. Today, when you sign up for cable modem or DSL service, you're left with a wide-open connection to the Internet. If you're smart, you'll invest in a firewall appliance or personal firewall software for your computers. But in the future, broadband providers that are forward-thinking will likely tempt customers by offering equipment that incorporates firewall technology or building security into their networks.

Another way in which broadband providers are likely to differentiate their offerings is application services. Seasonal applications (such as tax-preparation software) could be among the first to move to a server-based model, thus relieving users of the need to maintain their software with patches and updates. Other providers may choose to offer their customers remote backup and recovery services - assuming they can find a way to make them profitable.

Off the leash

The wireless revolution further complicates broadband's future. No matter what set of numbers you pick, analysts all seem to agree that the wireless market will grow twelvefold from 1999 levels to 2003.

But a whole slew of technical advances will have to fall into place before broadband service can be delivered without wires. Wireless WAN technology has been in use for several years, but the pitifully slow data rates (9600Kbps to 14,400Kbps in most implementations, although effective throughput is often half that) aren't practical for anything more intense than moving small chunks of text-based data. In other words, the wireless Web depends on throughput.

Whereas the IEEE continues to develop standards for broadband wireless, some vendors have begun to take the lead on work that addresses the technological challenges. For example, Terabeam Networks and Lucent Technologies are working on a novel attempt to use laser beams as carriers. (Initial testing is taking place in Seattle, a city where the notoriously sloppy weather should prove quite a challenge.) If it works, the problem of inferior performance in urban areas -- one of the most pressing -- could finally be resolved.

Regardless of how the future unfolds, it's clear that we've barely begun to tap the potential of broadband communications. Whether we waste it on the next generation of banner ads or use it to improve the way we live and work, one thing is certain: We're always going to want it faster.

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