Jeff Bier’s Impulse Response—Broadband: Getting Nowhere Fast

Submitted by Jeff Bier on Sat, 09/01/2001 - 16:00

In an obscure corner of 3COM's Web site is an epitaph; a barren savannah landscape with a lone tree in the background frames the phrase "End of Life." The death in question was not that of a zebra or wildebeest—in these modern technological proving grounds it was the innovative Kerbango Internet Radio that was recently deemed unfit.

Kerbango is not alone. While streaming media technology has been refined to the point that dozens of great consumer applications are now possible, these applications are being held back by the lack of home broadband Internet connections—the only type of connection fast enough to fuel streaming media applications.

Given the many uses of broadband, why hasn't it proliferated into our homes? The answer is that there are really only two types of home broadband providers today, and neither is celebrated for its rapid technology deployment, quality customer service, or competitive pricing.

In the U.S., giant telephone and cable television operators have a virtual duopoly on broadband Internet access. While dozens of resellers and purveyors of competing technology have tried to break into the market, their progress has been minimal. Most find it impossible to compete with the larger incumbents.

A recent paper by Professor Yale Braunstein of UC Berkeley concludes that the Bell companies are causing unreasonable delays in providing DSL connections and that their prices are unjustifiably high. The result, according to a recent Yankee Group study, is that fewer than 11% of U.S. residential Internet subscribers have a broadband connection.

Some companies are developing related kinds of consumer products that don't rely on broadband Internet connections. For example, Sirius and XM Radio are both developing satellite digital audio broadcast services. But sidestepping the Internet involves compromise—these systems are not interactive, and thus offer significantly less flexibility than those—like Internet radio—based on broadband connections. It really is no small irony: broadband—the fastest type of Internet connection—is being deployed at an almost glacial pace. Sadly, this slow rollout is stunting the growth of streaming media applications. These new applications are so compelling that they are bound to proliferate one day. The question is whether we will have to wait five years, or twenty-five.

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