As the broadband demo-ware season revs up, let's remember that broadband services are a "show" and not a "tell." You can talk all you want about the value of a high-speed connection, but nothing beats the experience of seeing one in operation.
The short demonstrations at trade shows or sales pitches don't allow a full appreciation of broadband's benefits, though. You've got to make broadband part of your life to understand what it brings — not just to work, but to home and personal activities.
Yet, despite the boom in broadband connections during the past year — and the avalanche of visionary promises about the entertainment, educational and productivity prospects for the technology — news of the reality remains extremely confined.
Moreover, the all-important policymakers who are shaping the future of broadband infrastructure are locked into a narrow range of high-speed applications. In fact, their household use of personal broadband connections adds credence to "next-generation" thinking.
Almost universally, regulators, lobbyists and opinion leaders acknowledge how their in-house offspring use home broadband connections more often and much differently from their parents.
An inquiring mind
For several months, I have queried Federal Communications Commission members and other Washington potentates about their broadband habits.
"How do you personally use your broadband connection at home?" I would ask before a speech, at a reception, during the Q&A portion of public presentations and sometimes during online or phone interviews. I took it for granted that these industry leaders should have high-speed connections at home, which turned out to be largely correct.
Overwhelmingly, these leaders emphasized their own use of personal broadband connections for work-at-home, research and productivity-related activities, including personal or family airline ticketing and shopping. I didn't expect anyone to admit extensive Kazaa peer-to-peer downloading or online movie-peeping, let alone forays into the nasty content that broadband so often streams.
Indeed, their responses were generally enthusiastic, albeit limited.
"I have a DSL connection, expanded by a WiFi network," FCC chairman Michael Powell replied via electronic mail. "I use the connection frequently to help my kids [with] homework, for research, for shopping and for entertainment. The best single one-stop shop that I use is www.refdesk.com."
Powell didn't specify his entertainment preferences, and the e-mail interview didn't permit follow-up. Yet.
Kids use it
Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy was ebullient, almost happy that I asked the question. She loves her digital subscriber line connection and uses it to work at home and to shop. She brightened especially when talking about how her daughter uses the broadband service constantly.
Commissioner Michael Copps admitted that he often cannot get onto his home cable-modem connection because his kids use it so much. (We didn't have time to discuss his need for more computers or a home network). Copps, a former academic, also says most of his home usage is for research or work-related.
Commissioner Kevin Martin claims that he recently moved and has not been able to install a broadband connection in his new home, although he has placed an order for service. At his previous residence, Martin used broadband for work-related activities.
Just-named Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said only that he uses a cable modem, and would not reveal usage habits.
Nancy Victory, director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, declined to talk about her personal broadband experience — and that was conveyed via an NTIA spokesman.
Ken Ferree, chief of the FCC's Media Bureau, acknowledged: "My wife uses our cable modem service regularly. She often shops online, makes travel arrangements, and does research. I mostly use the broadband connection to work from home — access e-mail, download documents, etc."
At lobby day
The most perplexing encounter during this unscientific canvass bubbled up during "Lobby Day" for the High-Tech Broadband Coalition. Dozens of top executives from equipment makers, component suppliers and software companies were heading to the FCC and NTIA to plead for policies that encourage investment and competition in the high-speed sector.
So how did these executives use their home broadband services? Rhett Dawson, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, one of the six trade associations that run the HTBC, bristled at the question, suggesting members' personal experiences were irrelevant.
But most of his colleagues ignored Dawson, eager to divulge their broadband predilections, which turned out to be extensive, albeit predictable.
Corporate leaders mentioned their work-at-home reliance on high-speed service; a few gloated about their peer-to-peer proclivities, demonstrating their inner geek.
Nonetheless, their pride in being part of the broadband creative experience was evident, and a few introduced new ways in which they and their colleagues are helping deliver services such as "tele-religion" (church services for homebound) and education.
This group also repeatedly discussed how their resident adolescents embrace the home broadband links. As with other folks, I frequently heard explanations that the "kids can't live without broadband."
And that leads to the gloomy realization that the search for compelling broadband applications may take years — especially among fickle youth with new expectations.
Net time's over
The high-speed frenzy and remnants of "Internet time" (i.e. instantaneous development and delivery) is now confronted by the reality of implementation.
At the peak of the technological craze, there were dreams that we could speed up human gestation by making nine men pregnant for one month each — rather than the conventional nine-month human-gestation process. (Note the expectation that nine males
could handle the task, under the new arrangement.)
As it turns out, there is a natural and extended process for important creations — babies or broadband services. It is necessary to pay attention to the frequent reminders from both policy leaders and average households that "next-generation" customers will embrace new opportunities in different ways than today's grown-ups.
Luckily, policymakers are seeing the value of broadband right in their own homes. But that does not assure a faster rollout for high-speed applications.
Contributing curmudgeon Gary Arlen mans the I-Way Patrol for Broadband Week.