If you're connecting to the Internet via dial-up modem, time to kick it up a notch. We're moving quickly to a broadband universe.
An estimated 5 million households in the United States are able to surf the Net at broadband speeds well in excess of the 56K standard for dial-up modems.
That large and growing broadband audience is transforming what the Internet looks like and what you can do with it.
The most obvious impact of such zippy-fast connections is that Web pages and e-mails are transferred in a wink. But that's only the beginning. Broadband also makes possible advanced Internet services ranging from digital radio to video-on-demand to two-way videophone calls and more.
Net surfers are seeing Web sites that offer larger, more complex and more graphically enhanced content. Streaming audio is increasingly common. So are video clips and animated graphics.
The spread of broadband connections also played a key role in the controversy over the Napster music-swapping software.
Theoretically, you can download multi-megabyte song files over a 56K modem. But as a practical matter, not much music gets swapped if it takes you 15 or 20 minutes to download each song.
But you can download a song file in three or four minutes using a broadband connection -- roughly the time it takes to listen to it.
The emphasis on speed explains why music trading started with college students, who have broadband connections in their classrooms and dorms, and then exploded into the mainstream as broadband became more readily available to other consumers.
Broadband connections are available in many places via cable television networks or via phone systems employing 'digital subscriber line," or DSL, technology.
Priced at $30 to $50 a month, these broadband connections generally operate at speeds of 300,000 kilobits per second and up. That's several times the speed of 56K modems.
Although broadband prices are roughly double the $20 a month or so that Internet service companies charge for dial-up access, broadband is still proving popular.
One reason is that broadband doesn't tie up a consumer's regular phone line. Many Net enthusiasts, who had been paying for a second phone line to reach the Internet, are able to drop the second line and use the savings to defray the cost of broadband.
Another reason is that broadband is "always on," meaning there is no annoying wait while the modem connects to an Internet-access provider. In other words, whenever the PC is on, so is the Internet.
This combination of speed, convenience and affordability is fueling the broadband boom, especially among users who have experienced broadband connections at work.
Broadband is widely available in urban and suburban areas, but the cost of wiring and equipment means it will take a while before people in more rural areas get a chance to hook up.
Meanwhile, some promising alternatives are emerging. One is a so-called "fixed wireless" technology that enables people to receive high-speed data connections via radio signal. Another is a next-generation satellite technology that does essentially the same thing without the need for radio towers to send and receive the signals.
But whatever connection is used, it's clear that high-speed is the wave of the future on the Internet. And as that speed spreads, the nature of the Internet itself is destined to change along with it.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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