The Need for Speed
Broadband service is a category of telecommunications technology that
provides multiple channels of data via a single communications medium, typically
through some form of frequency or wave division multiplexing. It promises
to goad home and small- office users into the Information Age by giving
them robust, real-time and dependable connectivity.
"With broadband, if your computer is turned on, then you're on the Internet,"
explains Steve Lang, vice president of external communications for AT&T
Broadband. "And as a result, people start seeing things differently. They
no longer say, "I have to go out on the Internet.' They say, "Let me check
my computer,' because it feels like the Internet is in their computer, not
out there somewhere."
Cable is the first practical broadband technology to hit the streets, but
others will soon be ready to compete. Consider the options:
Broadband cable has speeds ranging from 1.5 to 3 million megabits/sec,
is relatively inexpensive to operate and, once it's deployed, offers access
to everyone in the neighborhood. The only real downside is that systems
do have to be upgraded, which involves ripping out copper lines and replacing
them with fiber-optic lines, an effort that can take more than a year to
complete for most communities.
Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) provides computer users with high-speed
data access over an ordinary twisted-pair telephone connection. Currently,
just 5 percent of the bandwidth in a copper line is used for voice communications;
DSL goes after that unused upper spectrum, using digital modems at each
end of the line and a "splitter box" at the user site to separate the analog
and digital signals and shifting data and video transmission into hyperdrive.
The major attractions of DSL are that 99 percent of the country already
has telephone access, and the technology enables users to reach speeds of
1.5 megabits/sec. The major downside is that, at present, the technology
has distance problems; to access the service, an end user has to be within
12,000 feet of a telecommunication provider's central office. Most cities
and counties that are undergoing cable upgrades also have DSL available,
but only about 40 percent of customers can actually get the service.
Wireless cable and satellite providers hope to provide rural and mobile
customers with high-speed Internet access in the near future. Although some
companies are offering wireless broadband services, the technology remains
relatively immature and hampered by transmission difficulties. With satellite,
for example, end users can download data at lightning fast speeds, but they
still can't upload; to send a file, they have to utilize a wired phone line.