Broadband Broadsided

For most people, there's a gap between what the Internet can potentially deliver - movies, videoconferencing, and fast, smooth uninterrupted service - and what they can actually receive in their homes. But it's not a gap that's causing much protest. Not yet.

Closing the gap would require hooking up each home to high-capacity data transmission, known generally as broadband. By the end of this year, estimates run, some 14.1 percent of US homes will have high-speed connections. By comparison, Europe will have 3.3 percent.

Those with slower connections have been mostly happy just using the Net for e-mail, instant messaging, games, and research. That relative satisfaction with the cyber-status quo is part of what burst the dotcom/telecom bubble.

The demand simply hasn't jelled yet - in homes or in many offices - to absorb hundreds of new online services and fill thousands of newly laid miles of fiber-optic cables, currently the main conveyance for broadband capability. The companies that furiously created those fiber-optic networks over the past few years were way ahead of the market. They are typically able to sell only a third, or much less, of their vast capacity.

A gusher of speculative dollars drove the "if you build it, they will come" approach of the late '90s. Entrepreneurs wanting to join the broadband building spree had little trouble finding investors willing to put up millions. Their vision was clouded by dollar signs. A clearer vision of the immediate e-future will be needed to eventually make use of the information-age infrastructure now in place.

Some members of Congress are pushing bills to create tax incentives or regulatory breaks for potential providers of broadband service to America's hinterland. If lawmakers focus too much on particular service providers, like regional phone companies, those efforts, too, could be ahead of the market.

After all, the technology is in flux. The winning way to bring broadband service into homes is up for grabs, so government efforts to pick a winner are premature. Wireless service is likely to be the best choice for many rural, out-of-the-way locations.

The industries providing the technology are in flux too. Many companies that overbuilt, anticipation vastly expanded Internet use, are scrambling to stay afloat. Mergers are frequent. But perhaps most important, few companies have figured out how to provide reliable service to consumers who want broadband access. Anecdotes abound about Net-savvy customers running into red tape and miscommunication.

Beyond that, what kind of products - interactive video games, college lectures, you name it - will flow through this service?

That decision is ultimately up to the Internet user. The industry and government must await the demand.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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