Questioning Technology: The Great Bandwidth Race

In what resembles a frenetic gold rush stampede, a seemingly endless number of high tech companies are now locked in an intense competition for what they hope is the mother lode of the information age: the "wired" living room.Though the basic product is an affordable big bandwidth pipeline universally available to American homes, the implications of such technology go well beyond the delivery system. Many investors expect the home bandwidth breakthrough to spawn an entirely new sector of the entertainment industry -- one that for the first time combines traditional broadcast television programming with the interactive information resources now available on the Internet.Greater bandwidth (meaning the capacity to carry huge amounts of data at very high speeds) not only means faster access to Web pages, sound and graphics, but it will mean that substantial nuggets of 30-frame-per-second video -- the mainstay of today's broadcast television -- can finally be delivered efficiently over the Internet. It also means that traditional longform broadcast television programming will be increasingly linked to Web pages and other Internet information now accessible only by personal computer.The impact of the bandwidth race is cascading into every nook and cranny of the television industry. In recent weeks television receiver manufacturers such as Thomson Consumer Electronics (RCA, Proscan and GE brands), Zenith (with its new Inteq brand), Sony and others have announced plans for new home television products that include Internet access. At the same time, computer giants like Microsoft, Intel and Compaq are introducing new broadcast-friendly personal computers.Wired and wireless cable TV operators, direct-to-home satellite services and broadcasters of all sorts are furiously working to challenge the phone company lock on Internet services to the home and office. Program producers and new media companies, sensing the looming bandwidth breakthrough, are preparing a new category of entertainment television programs that combine data services with traditional video."I think the bandwidth break will come sometime next year," said John Warnock, CEO of Adobe Systems, a leading manufacturer of design software for the creation of Internet Web sites. Adobe, he said, is already hard at work planning for a new generation of authoring tools that incorporate video content within Web pages.The recent announcement that Thomson Consumer Electronics would team with Compaq Computer to develop a new generation of home entertainment products recognized the fast approaching new era of data-enhanced broadcasting."We envision an initial direction of highly featured products that will particularly appeal to video enthusiasts and computer-experienced consumers who enjoy the home theater experience," said Joseph P. Clayton, Thomson's executive vp of sales and marketing. "Internet capability will be just one application that will transform the private experience of the PC to an entertainment and information experience that can be shared by the entire family.""There's a TV centric platform and a PC centric platform developing for the Internet," said Hal Krisbergh, a veteran cable industry executive . That means, said Krisbergh, certain types of Internet content will be created for big screen entertainment viewing in the living room while other content is designed for access by a personal computer on a desktop."TV viewers are going to be able to access Web pages, advertisers and information on sporting events that they are watching," said Krisbergh, whose start-up Worldgate Communications will soon offer Internet services in the vertical blanking interval of cable programming. "All sorts of very interesting things will happen on the TV centric entertainment platform."Though paths of varying bandwidths may soon be open to the home, other bottlenecks remain in the vast global network of networks known collectively as the Internet. In fact, many Internet experts think that increased numbers of high bandwidth sound and video connections to the home will increase crowding on the Internet backbone and circuits and actually slow down the Net as a whole.One source of bottlenecks are the regional Internet hubs where computer systems interconnect. "All the little Internet service providers connect ultimately through the big Internet service providers. There are often bottlenecks at the points where these services connect," said Felix Kramer, a New York City-based Internet consultant for businesses and organizations that engage in electronic publishing. "Some ISPs (Internet Service Providers) upgrade their systems and some don't," he said."And there are still server problems," said Adobe's Warnock, recalling the not so distant days when interactive television tests challenged server technology. "Serving that amount of information over the Internet is going to be a tremendous challenge. Even with today's Internet we have to use really, really, really fast servers. I think at first you'll see more of a hybrid broadcast style and then it will become more on-demand as the performance gets up there on the servers."Often forgotten in the bandwidth race is that these technical changes will also bring significant social changes to the Internet. Just as the Interstate highway system permanently changed the American landscape, big bandwidth highways to American homes will forever change the stubborn, finicky, anarchic Internet that we know today. The sluggish telephone connections that have so far shielded Internet users from a hurricane of advertising and propaganda is about to disappear.Not so long ago the grand promise of the Internet was as a participatory and democratic medium that would serve the interests of the public. Now the Net is rapidly shifting into an interactive broadcast medium where corporations will bombard users with endless multimedia sales pitches. Interactivity to most Net users will be reduced to little more than consumer transactions, e-mail and chat groups.Big bandwidth may also signal the end of cheap Internet hook-ups. Felix Kramer predicts that ultimately the major telecommunications companies are going to start charging for bandwidth in order to keep up with the dramatic technology demands of applications like video and audio. "I see them charging for bandwidth within two to three years," he said. "There's going to be a shortage of bandwidth for a long, long time."

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