Broadband Internet Service: What it Is and Where It's Going
Explanation of Broadband
Current State of Broadband
The Future of Broadband
The current frontier of high speed internet technology and digital communications is broadband. Although it has been available for several years now to both homes and businesses, broadband has not spread as rapidly as some proponents of the technology had hoped or expected, leading to the failure of some companies involved in this business. What is broadband, and what is its future? These are questions that are taking on increasing importance as broadband usage is finally increasing around the world. Of equal importance is which broadband technology will survive and how telecommunications regulations in this country will impact the digital world.
Explanation of Broadband
Simply put, broadband is high-speed internet access. Broadband allows for the high-speed transmission of large amounts of data. It is expected to revolutionize communications, entertainment, and ecommerce. Broadband can transmit data at a rate of forty to fifty times faster than dial-up or narrow band connections. A water pipe provides a good analogy. To get more water faster, you must use a bigger pipe. For data transmission, broadband is the bigger pipe. Broadband allows for the almost instantaneous download of such things as films, music, and games from the internet. Furthermore, it allows 24-hour internet connection, provides cheap videoconferencing, and makes video email feasible. It can also make digital television interactive. For example, a person watching a shopping program could place an order by touching the television screen. This capability could make t-commerce a powerful competitor to ecommerce. Current drawbacks to broadband technology include cost and lack of availability in some areas. People who have access to broadband at work also seem disinclined to get it at home. ("Understanding Broadband").
There are a number of competing technologies for delivering broadband service. First, there are Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL). DSL's use technology that allows high-speed data transmission along existing copper telephone lines. The major advantage of this approach is that the infrastructure for it is already in place. Broadband transmission can occur while the telephone is being used. Thus, there is no need for a second phone line. Additionally, each user has a dedicated line. Transmission rates are up to two million bits per second (2Mbps). This is about 36 times faster than dial-up connections with a 56 kbps modem. The drawback to DSL's is that the further you are from the base station, the weaker your signal will be. This problem can be alleviated if companies install more base stations or put in booster stations, but this is expensive (Held 59-78; "Understanding Broadband").
The second broadband medium is fiber optic cable. This is the same cable used for cable television and requires a cable modem. Carrying capacity is tremendous, up to 10 Mbps. Anyplace that has cable already installed is a candidate for broadband service. One of the drawbacks of this technology is that it is expensive to lay cable, so this type of service will probably only be available in urban areas, just as cable television is. Furthermore, users share the cable system, so data transfer speeds can be slowed appreciably. Cable companies respond to this criticism by saying that they will add more nodes as business warrants it. Another drawback of cable sharing is that it may be possible for your neighbor to access your computer if you're both connected to the same cable (Abe 116-163; Held; "Understanding Broadband").
The third type of broadband technology is the use of satellites. Satellites can provide worldwide broadband coverage, eliminating the need for both cable and telephone lines. Data transmission speeds can be fast, too- up to 35 Mbps. However, channels will be shared among multiple users, limiting effective speeds to no more than 6 Mbps. The major problem with broadband satellite is that data transmission is one-way. Data can be downloaded, but it cannot be uploaded. To do that, the user would have to plug into a telephone or cable line. Proponents of the satellite approach contend that most interactive uploads would be small, so slow uploads are not a problem. Furthermore, they contend that few people do uploads except for interactive applications ("Understanding Broadband"; "Teleports and the Broadband Future"; Held 151-175).
The fourth major kind of broadband technology is wireless data transmission. This technology uses radio waves to transmit data. Computers and other devices do not need to be plugged into a modem, cable or telephone line, and uploads of data are possible. Buildings and offices could be assigned their own frequencies and obtain broadband service without additional wiring. In limited areas, data transmission speeds could be as much as 11 Mbps. But, the technology is difficult to apply over large areas, so actual speeds will probably be no more than 2 Mbps. Also, users may need an antenna to receive data. Or providers can take a cellular telephone approach and establish cells in each area. However, just as with cellular phones, signal quality may be uneven. The cell approach may make sense is specific areas with high traffic, such as airports, mass transit stations, and downtown areas (Miracle; Goldman; "Understanding Broadband").
A fifth approach that has been investigated as a possible broadband data transmission system is power lines that carry electricity to homes and businesses. Engineers believe that data transmission speeds of 1 Mbps could be achieved. Furthermore, power lines are in nearly every building in the developed world, making it unnecessary to lay more wire or launch additional satellites. The problem that researchers have been unable to solve so far is that many electrical devices generate powerful interference, preventing the efficient transmission of digital data ("Understanding Broadband").
Which technology will ultimately triumph? Will it be one of the above methods of data transmission, or will a new technology emerge? Currently, cable and DSL have the lead as they have been aggressively promoted to existing customers of other services. It's likely that a combination of technologies will be used for the foreseeable future. Cable and DSL will both have an advantage in urban areas that are already wired. Wireless will be useful for other wireless devices, such as cellular phones and personal data assistants. Satellite will be best for those areas without extensive telephone and cable wiring, such as rural areas and less developed countries ("Which Broadband technology Will Win?").
III. Current State of Broadband
Broadband technology is in use, to varying degrees, in all parts of the world. Usage in the United States, Europe, and Australia has not increased as much as expected. Reasons are broadband's greater expense compared to dial-up connections and lack of availability in some areas. As noted above, some people who have access to broadband at work do not see a need yet to get it at home. While cable is in many homes in urban area, many commercial buildings have not been wired with fiber optic cable. In areas where DSL service is not yet available, workplaces often do not have broadband either. Despite lack of infrastructure in some areas, information firm emarketer expects there to be 117 million broadband users worldwide by 2004. Of these, 50 million will be in the Asia -Pacific region, more than in North America (Greenspan "Broadband's Future is Bright").
Broadband is having an impact on businesses. Mia Levesque, co-owner of Yikes Internet Specialties says that "high-speed broadband is a fundamental piece of our company's foundation. As a web design and development company, our entire industry is based on connection to the internet. The higher the speed, the more productive we can be." Companies are finding that videoconferencing and webcasting are cheap enough to use on a regular basis. With broadband technology, Ms. Levesque says that "video broadcasting and other multimedia presentations will continue to become viable options for organizations, companies and individuals."
Broadband is also having a major impact on teleport construction and the prices of existing teleports. Teleports collect and transmit information to and from satellites. They consist primarily of satellite dishes. Currently, there are about 1000 teleports in the world with about 100 new ones added each year. The reason for the explosion in teleport construction is broadband. Previously, satellite volume increased at an annual rate of 3-5% for decades. With the increased use of broadband connection, the volume increase has been 30-50% per year. Clearly, even though DSL and cable are ahead in broadband usage, satellite access is becoming an important aspect of broadband connection ("Teleports and the Broadband Future").
Microsoft is pushing broadband usage now. Many home users have avoided broadband not only because of its cost, but also because there have been few applications that actually required high speed connections. One company whose services did encourage broadband connections was Napster, but that company was driven into bankruptcy. Microsoft's President Rick Belluzzo believes that the company's future is tied to broadband. Belluzzo told cable industry executives that Microsoft is hoping to drive demand with subscription-based music downloading services. It's also adding game features and Windows applications that…