Broadband goes home

As the data spins out before us, keep in mind the understanding that a substantial change in online-user behavior is occurring even under the current prevailing constraints on the broadband medium. From its inception to the current time, broadband has been provided almost exclusively as a personal-computer


Nearly every residential broadband connection today is fed directly to a computer, and whether the application is a movie or an online shopping experience, it’s rendered through the lens of a computer monitor.

The emerging broadband models look to the day when the broadband data gets liberated from the confines of the PC and roams freely throughout the household. This vision is encapsulated by the movement to something called the home network, a topic that’s discussed in more detail elsewhere in this book. It supposes that broadband ultimately finds its way into numerous information and communications appliances, and that broadband becomes not just a PC network, but a home-premises network, wherein a central-receiving device might distribute broadband throughout the home in the way that an electrical junction box distributes electricity to every room.

Already, 69 percent of United States broadband users have multiple computers in the home, according to the Pew Internet study, and more than half of those households have some form of network that connects multiple computers.

More interesting is the notion, albeit further down the road, of allowing broadband to find its way into a broader array of appliances than just home computers, printers, and peripheral devices. A recent television commercial from the appliance-maker Whirlpool made the point clear. In it, a homeowner is surprised to find a refrigerator repairman at the doorstep. The refrigerator, linked to a broadband network, placed its own trouble call, prompting the onsite visit. Just idle speculation about a futuristic product? Nope. Magazine publisher Forbes reported the European appliance manufacturer Merloni Elettrodomestici of Fabriano has sold more than one million networked appliances (mostly washing machines) that can be controlled through the Internet.

Work is also progressing on the front lines of the much vaunted “convergence” movement, a place where a melding of functionality exists among computer-like devices and entertainment appliances, such as TV sets. For example, Software titan Microsoft and the PC maker Hewlett-Packard have collaborated on a computer called the Media Center PC that can act as a central repository for television and music content that can then be parceled out to networked devices in the home.

The point is that even given the fact that broadband is today imprisoned somewhat through the control of a single device–the PC–users have found a tremendous assortment of things to do with it, and are making meaningful changes in their daily media lives as a result. In fact, after it’s in the house, broadband seems highly likely to remain. An April 2001 survey of DSL users by the telephone company SBC

Communications found that 63 percent of customers claimed they’d give up their ritual morning coffee before yanking out the DSL line.

The fully rendered home broadband network might not be here yet, but one of the fascinating early byproducts of broadband availability seems to be a redefinition of where the PC fits within the household or within the context of family.

If you own a PC, chances are it’s perched comfortably on a desk somewhere in your home. After all, much of what we do over the computer is work. We review e-mail, manage budgets, type letters, and manage schedules. When we’re done, we’re done. We leave the PC and turn to more interesting and entertaining places in our homes.

The marriage of computers with desks, offices, and places where we typically work testifies to the fact that the PC is mainly associated with jobs and tasks. Even the growing popularity of streaming media and entertainment-oriented websites hasn’t done much to move the computer from the office to the living room in most households.

The true information revolution will come when the PC, or some other device that accepts a broadband connection, migrates en masse to the most lived-in spaces of the household: the kitchen, den, living room, and bedroom. We spend most of our time in those places. Today, for many families that enjoy the first generation of broadband connectivity, these places are where you’ll find a computer, laptop, a new wireless device known as a web-pad (think of an electronic Etch-A-Sketch), or a detached laptop screen with touch-screen controls that is wirelessly connected to a broadband network.

Having a computer in the kitchen hugely contrasts the typical PC-in-the-office scenario. But, remember that broadband doesn’t merely replace a dialup, or narrowband, Internet connection. As we’re starting to understand from the anthropology of the broadband household, broadband connections change the way people interact. In some ways, broadband seems to prompt entirely new behaviors and ways of responding to the myriad data streams that now ricochet about the home.

Suddenly, with broadband, PCs can drift from the office or den and mingle in all the right places. This mainstream emergence is more than symbolic. No longer imprisoned in spaces and rooms that are cut off from the remainder of the home, computing devices find new ways to flourish when they’re integrated into spaces that are more fundamentally relevant to daily life.

The kitchen, a place where so much daily activity revolves, is particularly prominent in the new world of broadband communications. Outfitted with a broadband connection, a surprising number of users have seen fit to plop their computing devices in the center of the action, at a kitchen desk or makeshift workstation located somewhere between the toaster and the electric can-opener. There, a steady diet of brief encounters and on-the-fly grazing replaces, or at least supplements, the elongated sessions familiar to those of us who have known the Internet as a narrowband creature.

For many families, locating the family PC in the kitchen has more to do with safeguarding their children from Internet ne’er do wells, certainly. But nonetheless, a PC in the kitchen, or in a centrally accessible room, is not a PC in a closed-off, remote room used for “work” computing.

Within broadband households, it’s common to find users integrating the Internet in their lives in seamless, instinctive ways. We see adults, for example, casually checking over the morning’s e-mail while they go about normal tasks to prepare for the day. While the toaster browns the bread, they get an early read on messages from the home office. Teens glance at local weather reports and (hoped-for) news of school closings on snowy winter mornings while searching for their lost pair of socks. In studies contrasting dialup Internet households with broadband households, a pronounced tendency is for the PC to become a more frequently used and widely shared resource.

This is hardly a puzzling phenomenon, of course. Dialup, narrowband users are accustomed to sitting before the computer, attempting to accomplish multiple tasks all in a single session that’s bound by two identifiable events: signing on and signing off.

There is a defined “start” and an equally apparent “finish” to the typical 40-minute dialup session. Between these two invisible bookends, we attempt to complete our online to-do list.

With broadband, you don’t have any sign-on and sign-off periods. The concept of a “session” doesn’t exist. The persistent broadband connection means that the network is available whenever you want it. New devices beginning to proliferate in the world of wireless networks illustrate this feature well. They don’t need to boot up or go through a four-minute ritual of “coming to life.” When you need them, they’re there, connected to the network, and ready for you to use. Hand-held devices that gather your e-mail messages are a great example of this concept. They don’t boot. They just respond to what you need, instantly.

Again, let’s use a television analogy. The programs and channels available on television are, effectively, always available; they swirl invisibly around you as part of the radio frequency of a broadcast or satellite TV network (or tucked within the coaxial wiring of cable television). When you turn your television’s “power” button on, images and sounds instantly greet you: The nightly news report. The rock concert. The laugh-track moment on a syndicated sitcom. The close-up of a flying lizard in a South American jungle. You don’t wait for your television to muster up a connection. You don’t hear the electronic shriek of two modems engaging in a cyber-handshake to establish a dialogue.

In homes with broadband connectivity, you don’t wait for the electronic handshake, and no noise signals the initiation of a connection. Silently, the network is ever-present, and so long as your broadband device is turned on, it’s available to summon web pages, e-mails, instant messages, and more in the mere fraction of a second that it takes you to press a key or to move a mouse. As one SBC Communications consumer-survey respondent said, “My computer is on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Broadband users seem willing to discard the idea that the web is a place full of destinations. Rather, it’s a treasure of content that’s already here–right now. Again, think of the television model. There’s no need to consider television programs as resources that must be fetched from distant places. The fact is that they’re right here in the living room, and the mere pressing of a button summons tonight’s hockey game obligingly onto the screen. Similarly, broadband users seem to consider their favorite web pages and content providers as resources that are literally already resident in the home, just as common PC applications already reside in the computer.

Here’s how one broadband user, interviewed for a study published by the former cable television company MediaOne, described the experience:

When I first got this service, I couldn’t believe this was the Internet. I was in

Netscape but it wasn’t acting like it usually did…. Now, it just seemed too simple.

Switching between (Microsoft) Word and the Internet was like changing channels on the television.

Planet Broadband is published by Cisco Press ISBN: 1587200902.

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