by John Ochwat
If you're thinking about producing rich content for the Internet, it's easy to rhapsodize about the good old days, when a few small photos and some text made up a Web site. Back then, you didn't have to worry about compression, server balancing, or bandwidth.
But even back in the old days, people were imagining the types of things possible when high-speed access was the norm rather than the exception. "As soon as everyone has high-speed access," many a sentence began.
Because not everyone has high-speed access, bandwidth is still a big issue, and it affects decisions on what goes on a site, and how big it is. There are now more ways to access the Internet than there were a few years ago, and the door is still open for new technologies to enable different ways and speeds of access.
With all that in mind, how will people be accessing the Internet, and at what speed? Is the number of people accessing at higher speed growing? We went in search of answers.
The good (and slow) old days
As recently as a few years ago, the only high-speed access to the home was a T1 line. But for those who have not won the lottery or made a fortune at a dot-com, the thousands per month it cost made it prohibitively expensive. Not only that, many phone companies won't even install them in homes.
The other option was ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), which was more widely available and realistically priced, but slower (about 128 Kbps). However, in the past year or two, two other options have emerged that are faster and cheaper -- namely DSL and cable modems.
DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) comes in a number of flavors (asymmetric and symmetric, for example) and offers speeds of 1 to 8MB per second.
Cable modems are also screamingly fast - up to 1 million characters per-second (1 Mbps), equivalent to about 35 times the speed of a 28.8-Kbps modem and 10 times or more the speed of an ISDN connection. While uploading speed varies depending on the equipment used by the cable company, for the purposes of downloading (in other words, your audience), it's very, very fast.
Average Connection Speed
% of Internet Users
Less than 14.4K bps
56K - 1M bps
Greater than 1M bps
Connection speed is rising. Only 3% of Internet users surveyed still connect at a speed of 14K bits/second. Over 65% of users connect at speeds between 28K and 1Meg bits/second.
Source: Laare Rowan of Web Design Guide explains: "[These statistics] come from a variety of sources, both private (Internet marketing companies who run private testing) and public sources such as GVU's data. Each published number, except when attributed to a specific source (i.e. Nua Internet Surveys, etc.) is my own best guestimate, based upon the weighting I give each source."
However, DSL and cable modems are relatively new to home users. A year ago, Kinetic Strategies Inc. (publishers of Cable Datacom News) estimated there were 1.8 million homes using cable modems, and xDSL.com, a Tulsa, Oklahoma consulting company, estimated there were only 575,000 DSL lines in use.
Only as fast as the technician
A year later, those numbers have picked up. According to Kinetic, 3.2 million (out of a total of 110 million) US homes have cable modem access, and 1.0 million have some form of DSL service. Even with that growth, "the number of homes accessing the Internet at high speed is still miniscule," says Kinetic's president, Michael Harris.
Of course, not everyone accesses the Internet at home. According to research firm Jupiter Communications, the number of corporate broadband users is about three times the residential installed base. In other words, if people are willing to use their corporate connection to see your stuff, you're in much better shape.
While usage of both DSL and cable modems is growing, both have technical and consumer issues that will work against them.
Many cable television systems were set up to send a signal but not receive one. In other words, to send something back up the pipe (say, e-mail) was impossible. However, for Internet service, it's a requirement. Thus, "Availability of the service is the biggest factor for cable modem service," notes Bob Larraibeau, director of access networks for the research firm Ryan Hankin Kent.
According to Kinetic, cable modem service was available to 48 million homes in the U.S. and Canada in June 2000, approximately 44 percent of all cable homes passed. And AT&T, which is in the midst of a massive upgrade to its cable networks, estimates it will only have two-way cable to 80 percent of homes at the end of the year. And that's assuming that cable runs to your house to begin with. Since cable to the home is not as universal as telephone service, that's hardly a given. Which means cable modems will be far more prevalent in urban and suburban areas than in rural ones.
Then there's the problem of installation. According to Gary Schultz, president and principal analyst of MRG Inc., "For DSL as well as cable modems, the issue is still the last mile -- might be the last 75 feet." Unlike a 56K modem, cable modems and DSL lines both need trained installers, which are not always available.
"We hear installation horror stories all the time," Schultz notes, adding that his company has considered putting out a report on the travails of installing broadband to the home.
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