We're hearing a lot these days about high-speed "broadband" connections to the Internet.
The most common versions are cable Internet and digital subscriber line (also called DSL), but there are others, including satellite connections.
All are considerably faster than the 56K modem, which has become the standard for conventional phone-line connections.
But are these new "broadband" connections really all that fast?
The answer is yes and no. Faster than modems, for sure. But still not nearly fast enough for everything we need and want them to do.
Don't take my word for it. You can see for yourself by, say, viewing an online video. Yes, that postage-stamp-size image is the screen. That jerky, blurry color is the picture. That scratchy sound is the audio.
And if online video won't work well, neither will video-telephone calls, movies-on-demand, videoconferencing and other applications that demand sound and pictures moving together.
Part of the problem is sheer speed. Even with compression, sending video at 30 frames per second -- a common standard in video display -- requires moving a lot of data. And while broadband connections are faster than their predecessors, they're still not up to the challenge.
Another part of the problem is reliability. The Internet doesn't distinguish between the kinds of data being sent over the wires. A piece of e-mail gets the same priority for transmission as a video stream.
Although that's admirably evenhanded, it doesn't make sense. For all practical purposes, it doesn't make much difference whether an e-mail arrives a few seconds earlier or later. But a streaming video that gets interrupted for even a fraction of a second is a major annoyance.
For video to work well over the Internet, a system of prioritizing traffic is essential. Data for which transmission speeds are critical should get the go-ahead, while less time-sensitive traffic waits a moment or takes an alternate route.
Unless and until that technical challenge is solved, online video transmissions of the kind we're accustomed to on broadcast TV, VCR or DVD simply won't be possible -- even over broadband connections.
But please don't misunderstand. I mean no disrespect to cable Internet, DSL or even 56K. As someone who first went online at 1200 bits per second, I regard 56K as blazingly fast and broadband as nothing less than a minor miracle.
Still, there's no denying that today's top speeds haven't reached the level they need to attain.
No one talks about whether the voice telephone system, the AM/FM radio system or the television broadcast system are fast enough. That's because they operate well within the available transmission limits.
We're not there with the Internet yet.
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