Broadband goes home

Now a couple of words about those broadband people: They’re busy.

Like the widespread availability of electrical power did to communities in the early 1900s, the infiltration of broadband into the home is starting to change the way people live and behave. Electricity gave us home washing

machines, refrigeration, and the ability to sustain light long into the night. Broadband provides millions of residential users with the tools to learn, interact, and communicate in new ways.

Kevin Brinks is one of these residential users. A work-at-home sales representative who sells high-technology image scanners, Brinks is a card-carrying member of the broadband revolution. Armed with a high-speed DSL connection that’s fed through a home network to four PCs within his house, he routinely transmits large data files to clients from his downstairs office in a matter of seconds. “With dialup, that was taking me 25 minutes each time,” Brinks says.

What’s equally notable is the influence of the broadband “always-on” connection on his family. From an upstairs bedroom, Brinks’ teenage son plays video games on the Internet with opponents who live miles–or even continents–away. His wife, Katy, has become accustomed to checking a PC perched in the living room several times a day to read e-mails and surf the Internet for everyday information (such as weather reports, movie listings, and more). “Any time she wants to research anything–local information or whatever–she just pops on there, types a couple of keywords, and moves on,” says Brinks.

Although they might not realize it, the Brinks family of suburban Denver is part of a revolution changing the way people work, learn, and communicate. Broadband connectivity inspires changes in the way millions of worldwide users conduct their daily affairs.

It’s also encouraging them to spend more time roaming the world of interactive media at large. Compared with people who connect to the Internet in the old-fashioned narrowband way, broadband users are online more, and when they are online, they do more. For one thing, broadband users are big consumers of entertainment and information that’s streamed over the Internet. A growing bounty of this material is available, ranging from major-league baseball games on to hundreds of live radio feeds from stations around the world. Studies show that broadband users are far more apt than dialup users to tune in. Also, broadband users are fast becoming notorious for the penchant of downloads–music, software, and more–that can be captured more quickly, thanks to broadband’s faster data rates.

A taste for streaming audio and file downloads is just one characteristic that defines the growing broadband community. Another striking finding of one research effort into broadband behaviors is that people who have broadband at home spend nearly as much time on the Internet as they do watching television or listening to the radio (about 21 percent of their total daily “electronic media time”). That’s a big departure from households with narrowband Internet access, who typically spend just 11 per cent of their electronic media usage on the Internet, according to a 2000 study by the media research firm Arbitron. The survey of 3283 people, called “The

Broadband Revolution: How Superfast Internet Access Changes Media Habits in American Households,” found that people in broadband households spent an average of 134 minutes daily on the Internet. That’s 61 percent more time than the 83 minutes per day spent by people in dialup households.

Before we draw any breathless conclusions about the broadband user revolution, note that broadband users tend to be younger, better educated, and earn higher incomes than people with dialup. Those factors might have some bearing on the behaviors exhibited by the broadband community. But, let’s not quibble too much. Anyone who has been liberated from long file-download times and poor playback of streaming audio or video can readily understand why broadband users would want to partake of these features more frequently. Over broadband, downloads actually work well.

The disparities between broadband users and dialup Internet users are even more dramatic when viewed by age. The most prolific broadband users are 18 to 24 year-olds, who report that they spend three hours a day on the Internet, according to a 2001 follow-up study from Arbitron.

As you’d imagine, the notion that broadband compels people to spend more time on the Internet and relatively less time with television has sent many a television-programming executive into panic mode. Television networks and programmers have scurried to develop business models that might allow them to retain their traditional presence in the daily lives of consumers, whether that happens to occur through television or through broadband. A similar search for presence on the new broadband platform has occurred in the movie and music industries, with no one yet having claimed the perfect business model. (One comforting fact for captains of the television industry, perhaps, is the finding that broadband users tend to be incorrigible

multitaskers: Twenty-five percent of the respondents to the Arbitron 2002 study reported that they frequently watch television while using the Internet.)

But driving people from the tube isn’t the only thing broadband seems to accomplish. With fast access to Internet content and–importantly–easier ways to contribute their own content to others, broadband users have truly become a unique breed. Compared to “average” Internet users, they tend to do more activities with the Internet, do them more frequently, and do them for longer periods of time.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project, which is based on telephone interviews with 507 adult Internet users in early 2002, represents one of the most penetrating looks into the way broadband users interact with the network. Authors John Horrigan and Lee Rainie identified three primary features of home broadband users:

• They create and manage their own content–One of the positively inspiring aspects of broadband is its ability to encourage users not only to consume content, but to create it.

About 40 percent of broadband users have been creating their own content for publication over the Internet (in the form of personal or family Web sites and online diaries), according to Pew’s study. On an average day, 17 per cent of broadband users share data files (photos, documents, and music) with others.

In each instance, these behaviors occur more frequently with broadband users than dialup users. “People are not passive recipients of media,” noted Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet study on broadband users, “They are creators and distributors, too.”

Broadband’s capability to make it easier to distribute large and small files might be inspiring a rebirth of the Internet’s original promise: to provide a peer-to-peer network that enables users to easily share information. With a rising corporate and organizational influence, the Internet has become largely a client/server model, wherein large numbers of users extract data from centralized web servers (think Broadband won’t do away with the client/server model by a long stretch, but it does present a platform that makes it more likely that users will increasingly stamp their individual imprint over the network. The rise of sophisticated classification systems that make it easy to search for and download music recordings from user communities is living proof that broadband and related new applications have facilitated this migration from client/server to peer-to-peer computing.

• They use their always-on connections to satisfy their queries–The Pew

Internet authors found that the persistent connection offered by broadband enables users to turn to the Internet for all sorts of information needs. Sixty-eight per cent of broadband users say that they do more information searching online because of their always-on, high-speed connection.

About 90 percent of users said the Internet has improved their ability to learn

new things, and nearly 50 percent said that the Internet has improved their ability to get health-care information. In each instance, when compared to

dialup users, broadband users are more apt to credit the Internet with helping them get information that’s relevant to their lives. Lots of broadband users credit the always-on nature of broadband with making it easier to find information. There’s something elegant and powerful about the ability to turn to the Internet on a whim, conduct a brief search, and find something out without having to endure the delay of initiating a new dialup session.

• They do many activities online on a typical day–The high-speed connection enables broadband users to perform multiple tasks throughout the day.

Broadband users are online at least once a day, which is more than narrowband users. More than 80 percent of broadband users said they’re online on a given day; only 58 percent of dialup users said the same.

Planet Broadband is published by Cisco Press ISBN: 1587200902.

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