It's coming. the great leap forward for the Internet revolution. Broadband. Gone will be the days of slow connections, of waiting for Web pages to download, of watching choppy video feeds in tiny little boxes. In the future, we'll be able to carry on live teleconferences with participants on six continents, watch interactive movies with digital surround sound, and purchase the clothes off actors' backs simply by clicking on them. All hail, broadband!
That's great, but what exactly is "broadband" and what good will any of those things be to a small business?
A Broad Definition
Like all great buzzwords, "broadband" means different things to different people. Its simplest meaning refers to the widespread adoption of high-speed, always-on Internet connections. Right now, the most common types are ISDN, T1 lines, digital subscriber lines, and cable. Some providers are experimenting with wireless and satellite connections.
People also use "broadband" to refer to how the Internet might change when everyone has one of these connections. Nobody knows how it will change, but columnists and salesmen don't let like to let little things like that stop them. So they simply lump every possible outcome under a single term. "Broadband" may seem like a word; really it's a question mark.
What It Might Mean
The cost of technologies like DSL has dropped low enough that most businesses can afford it. And, it's true, it can be a mixed blessing: Employees can do research and communicate with one another more efficiently, but can turn into high-speed lollygaggers if you don't keep an eye on them.
The best indicator of whether or when you need to supercharge your connection is how much employees are using the Internet to do all those things already. If people are twirling their thumbs instead of checking their e-mail, it's time to join the broadband club.
However, many of broadband's biggest groupies love it because it offers speed to spare. One of broadband's major benefits transmitting video smoothly is useless to most businesses. Videoconferencing has already arrived as a major business application, and it was DOA. You have to look a little harder to find areas where it will really come in handy.
If the application service provider model of renting applications run from remote locations catches on (see the March "Afraid to Ask"), high-speed connections will play an essential part. Many businesses may never set up complex internal networks: They'll just give fast connections to all their employees even ones who work in remote offices or at home and run everything off of someone else's servers. If they can work off the same systems, at the same speed, they will be that much closer to actually being there.
It may be that the prophets who proclaim that broadband will change the way we work are partly right. Still, many are determined to turn the Internet from a useful medium into a 24/7, all-singing, all-dancing waste of bandwidth.
The Future Is Further Than You Think
Everyone likes to pretend that the brave new broadband world is right around the corner, but it's still a long way off. DSL is now available in many areas, but not all, and even when you can get it the installation process isn't exactly simple or instantaneous. Cable-modem connections aren't practical for most businesses, and aren't available in all areas where telecommuters might live. And cable is especially susceptible to "bandwidth hogs" who can actually slow down their neighbor's connections. In other words, it could be slowed down by its own popularity.
The telecoms and ISPs will get this system sorted out eventually, and then everyone will get to work figuring out what to do with it. What "broadband" ultimately means to small businesses will be up to you.
Where To Go
Whatever effects broadband may have on culture and commerce, right now it all comes down to connections. Some of the most prominent players on the scene:
Covad is the biggest DSL provider in the U.S. They only sell through ISPs and other resellers, which is why you've never heard of them. www.covad.com; 800-462-6823.
Roadrunner is AOL Time Warner's high-speed cable connection service. Ground zero for the singing, dancing Internet. Meep meep! www.roadrunner.com; 703-345-2500.
Terabeam Networks is trying to hurdle the stumbling blocks laying wires by sending information in light beams shot through the air. Think of it as fiberoptics without the fiber. www.terabeam.com; 888-372-2326.
David G. Propson is an associate editor for SBC. Have any questions you want answered? Drop us an e-mail at email@example.com.