Broadband: yes, but why?

I had an interesting time of it the other day debating with a colleague just what broadband is for. But his 'What's it for?' -- beyond the obvious benefits -- has me stumped.

I had an interesting time of it the other day debating with a colleague just what broadband is for.

I mean, we talk about it all the time (okay, I talk about it all the time), extolling the virtues of always-on connections, the future potential for telcos and businesses alike, not to mention the world of the low-ping gamer. But he's a sceptical fellow and I'm not sure I convinced him. Mind you, he has issues with telecommunications at the best of times, losing more cellphones than anyone I know and barking "internal or external?" whenever his phone rings -- it has different rings for different calls you see. Tricky.

But his "What's it for?" -- beyond these obvious benefits -- has me stumped. If the truth be known, I'm hard pressed to explain why broadband is an essential thing today. Sure, we're seeing the likes of the mobile surgical bus that uses wireless broadband to hook up local surgeons with specialists in the main centres, which is fantastic (almost literally). Sure, we're hearing about the odd school in the middle of nowhere that's keeping students because it can now offer calculus taught remotely, thanks to broadband. But why doesn't the vast majority of the population appear to want broadband? All those people pottering along on the shoulder of the information superhighway in their Ford Anglias with the traffic mounting up behind them -- don't they see me in my zippy new Lotus Elise? (Actually, when you consider that the Canadians and the Swedes are talking about broadband in terms of 10Mbit/s or even 100Mbit/s to the home, my 2Mbit/s JetStream connection is more like a hot hatchback than a mid-engine roadster, but a boy can dream can't he?)

Businesses are apparently using DSL-based links to replace other more expensive connections. But for the majority, there's currently only one use for broadband: surfing faster. And that's just not that interesting to most people. They get online for the email and for the most part are gloriously underwhelmed by the internet itself. It's slow, it's text-based and for the most part full of blinking, flashing ads that are annoying as all hell. You get viruses that have to be weeded out. You have to care about which version of your browser you're running because if you're on the wrong one you can't see things. It's not like television at all and, really, when all is said and done, the nuddy pictures all cost money. Napster's dead and gaming is for kids, isn't it?

I think we've established that we'd all like broadband to be twice as fast for a tenth of the price with very little download limitation, so let's look at the other issues.

Telecom's figures say JetStream uptake is growing at 2000 home users a month -- slow and steady, with a bit of a kick in the pants following the recent promotional activity. But that's not a lot compared to dial-up. People are staying with dial-up modems in their droves, which confuses me because I have broadband and can see how it changes the way you behave online. Being always connected means I can leave my email up and running all the time -- just like in the office. If someone calls me I can surf and chat at the same time (good for those must-make family calls) and instant messaging opens up a whole new layer of communication. That's not to mention the ability to upgrade my PC software without having to order CDs through the mail or stay up all night watching the hour glass tick over. But would I, could I, justify the cost for myself?

Without the user numbers, developers don't design sites for broadband. Without the content the users don't upgrade to broadband. It's a vicious cycle and I'm not sure of the solution. I'm glad to see the government driving the demand side of the process and the network operators are seemingly keen as well, so I think we'll get there in the future.

But for now, right now, I don't have a complete answer to the question. Do you?

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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