Broadband goes home

When contrasting broadband users and dialup users, the downloading and file-sharing disparity is particularly acute.

For every one narrowband Internet user who downloads music or swaps files with others, there are approximately three broadband users who snatch music, movies, and other online

content, or make files available to others. That’s no surprise. At a broadband connection rate of 1 Mbps, downloading a three- or four-minute music “single” can be accomplished in 20 seconds or less. The same song would take four agonizing minutes to capture over a 56-kbps connection. It’s as if broadband data rates have expanded the range of media and information we share and exchange–from simple text e-mails to peer-to-peer delivery of voice, video, and more.

The possibilities for even more enthusiastic usage rates on music become easy to contemplate as connection speeds rise over time. A broadband network operating at a super-fast data rate of 64 Mbps could deliver to you the entire contents of a 72-minute music album in about the same amount of time it would take to start your car’s ignition for a trip to the local record store (about five seconds). (Today, while music is feasible, downloaded movies are another story. Even with broadband connections of 1 Mbps, movies and long-form video can require hours to download, and remain more of a novelty than anything else.)

Broadband introduces a similar upswing in the use of so-called streaming content, which is material that comes across the network in real-time, just as a live television or radio broadcast does. Nearly one of every five broadband users in the Pew Internet study say that they routinely listen to streaming music or radio stations over the Internet. Just four percent of narrowband customers say the same.

What’s apparent across all major studies of the broadband user is the sheer diversity of activities conducted online. The Pew survey shows that the average broadband user does seven things online daily, such as fetching news reports or sending photos to family members. The average dialup Internet user completes only three tasks on an average day.

But doing more activities online isn’t the only attribute of merit for broadband users. Internet users with broadband connections say that broadband improves their ability to do many things they’re already familiar with in the online world.

Those with a big economic stake in the future of the Internet have watched with keen interest the emerging portrait of the broadband user. Executives from America Online (AOL), which operates the single largest connection between the Internet and consumers, observes that, among other things, broadband users tend to grab bits and snippets of content and information from the network throughout the day, a behavior that the company’s president, Jonathan Miller, labeled “information snacking” in a 2002 presentation to securities analysts. He’s got a point. According to the Pew Internet study, 43 percent of broadband users go online several times a day; only 19 percent of dialup users log on more than once a day. Not only do the number of sessions increase with broadband, but the amount of time spent online and the number of web pages viewed also increases. Sean Kaldor, an executive with the measurement firm Nielsen//NetRatings, studied the behavior of a sample panel of Internet users who had upgraded from narrowband to broadband between December 2000 and May 2001. As To be sure, some habits and customs of the broadband household cannot be attributed purely to the availability of broadband. Broadband users in general, or at least the first and earliest adopters, tend to come from homes with higher annual incomes and with larger families than the prevailing norm. Even so, researchers believe that these demographic differences are less important in influencing online behavior than the presence of broadband. “The availability of a broadband connection is the largest single factor that explains the intensity of an online American’s Internet use,” the Pew study states.

A close look at the broadband user base, and what sorts of activities broadband users do online, supports a recent theory that is popular among analysts of the medium:

No single “killer application” drives the use of broadband. In other words, combinations of a multitude of activities, ranging from consuming entertainment to communicating by e-mail or instant messages to buying goods online, are the byproducts of broadband access. Pew’s study found that 61 percent of broadband users say they’re spending more time online since discarding the old dialup modem and installing a broadband connection. Various applications are responsible for driving this increase in time spent on the Internet:

• Thirty-one percent said the extra time comes from more information searching.

• Nineteen percent said additional e-mailing soaked up their increased Internet time.

• Fourteen percent said they were downloading more movies or music.

• Thirteen percent said online shopping was the reason why they were on the network longer.

There is also a growing sense that broadband users are more apt than dialup users to be willing to spend money on online content. A January 2003 survey of Internet users in Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Sweden found that 18 percent of broadband users are willing to pay for video content compared to 11 percent of narrowband users. Broadband users also showed a greater willingness to pay for music and gaming content (reported the survey from Jupitermedia Corp).

Planet Broadband is published by Cisco Press ISBN: 1587200902.

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