Broadband Hits the Speed Limit

SAN FRANCISCO (04/19/2000) - You're surfing the Web with your broadband connection, but you just can't find a video clip encoded at more than 300 kilobits per second. That's no accident: It's about all the typical broadband user can reliably handle.

Wondering why more content providers haven't jumped on the broadband wagon?

It's likely because the broadband infrastructure is just not that broad--and it won't be for some time.

"The DSL ads are all touting [speeds] 50 times faster than a dial-up modem, but what most people are really getting is 384 kbps, not T1 speeds," says Tim Weis, an analyst at TeleChoice, a telecommunications consulting firm in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

And it's not just that 1.5-megabits-per-second packages usually cost hundreds of dollars per month. Digital subscriber line speed limitations are largely because only a handful of people are close enough to the providers' central office stations. "A 384-kbps speed is about all they can typically guarantee, mostly because of distance," says Weis.

Most home broadband users subscribe to cable modem services, where the bandwidth is usually higher--between 500 kbps and 1.5 mbps. But at peak hours on a crowded neighborhood loop, performance often drops to DSL levels or even lower. And regardless of the broadband technology or bandwidth tier, the average speed often falls below 400 kbps due to bottlenecks and slow servers across the Internet at large.

Breaking the Limits

One broadband improvement is the use of nationwide content-delivery networks.

Dubbed "edge" solutions, these networks use caching technology and collocation servers to bring big media files closer to the customer, allowing media to be available from every major metropolitan area. But most broadband Internet service providers using the technology are not using it to improve the quality of media content.

According to Alex Benik, an analyst with the Yankee Group, broadband ISPs have focused on caching technology to save money rather than to improve your viewing pleasure.

Caching can improve network efficiency, but it doesn't do much to improve media bandwidth. The more providers encourage users to suck large-bandwidth files over their networks, the less bandwidth they have for everyone else--and bandwidth still costs big money.

Benik says that competition is the key, and that it will be the incentive for broadband sites to move beyond 300-kbps media.

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