High-speed Internet access and video sharing form a bit of a chicken-and-egg question: Is broadband evolving to meet our needs for high-definition video, or is our need for high-definition video growing as broadband evolves?
For one perspective, revisit this quote from Jim Cicconi, vice president of legislative affairs for AT&T, speaking at the Westminster eForum in April 2008:
"Eight hours of video is loaded onto YouTube every minute. Everything
will become HD very soon, and HD is 7 to 10 times more bandwidth-hungry
than typical video today. Video will be 80 percent of all traffic by
2010, up from 30 percent today."
(By the way, YouTube has since upped that estimate to 10 hours of video uploaded every minute.)
If you're like me, you might find it hard to keep up with all the different Internet access technologies that are rolling out to suit (or feed) our obsession with HD video.
First, a recap of what we have today, then we'll ease into the near future:
Top speed: 56 kilobits per second
How it works: Your computer uses a modem to connect to an Internet Service Provider over the telephone line. There's a lot of screaming and clanging involved, as my parents learned every time they tried to use the phone in the early 1990s.
Market penetration: 10%, according to a 2008 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Looking ahead: Obviously this granddaddy of Internet access technology is on the way out, but with prices as low as $5 a month, it still appeals to a certain casual browser set who only wants to check e-mail.
DSL (Digital Subscriber Line)
Top speed: 6 megabits per second (100 times faster than dial-up)
How it works: Data is carried over your phone line's high-frequency band, leaving the low-frequency band free for voice communication.
Market penetration: 44% of broadband users at end of 2008 (source)
Looking ahead: With AT&T dominating the DSL market, you can probably expect this service to eventually give way to AT&T's new U-verse suite of high-speed offerings. U-verse uses fiber technology (see below), offering speeds four times faster than top-tier DSL. (Disclosure: AT&T is a client of Luckie & Co.)
Top speed: 8 megabits per second
How it works: Data is sent over your cable TV's network, similar to how DSL uses your phone network.
Market penetration: 53% of broadband users at end of 2008
Looking ahead: Cable giant Comcast seems to be betting its money on a pricy new "wideband" service with a potential for reaching up to 160 megabits per second. More on that below.
Top speed: 10–50 megabits per second, depending on whether the fiber comes all the way to your house.
How it works: This one can be confusing, because there are lots of fiber optic networks, but not all that many that come directly to your house. (Usually the signal gets slowed down by your existing coaxial cables and such.) But anyway, it works by sending information as bursts of light through a series of tubes.
Market penetration: About 3-5% of broadband users (that's a guess based on the numbers reported here).
Looking ahead: The big players here are Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse, though each still has a relatively limited reach. Still, expect to hear about them more and more as they gradually become the broadband standard for people currently using DSL.
Wideband (DOCSIS 3.0)
Top speed: 160 megabits per second
How it works: Upgrades current cable Internet to blast out data a whole lot faster.
Market penetration: Very small. Comcast has only rolled the service out in a few California cities, where it's $63–$140 a month.
Looking ahead: Expect Comcast to slowly push this across the nation as it fights off fiber offerings from AT&T and Verizon. But in this economy, such a steep price point might be a hard sell.
WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access)
Top speed: 12 megabits per second, so far
How it works: WiMax is a type of wireless access that can cover an entire community. That said, there's a lot of debate about whether it's a worthwhile competitor with current broadband systems like DSL and cable. You most often hear it mentioned as a "fourth generation" or "4G" wireless technology.
Market penetration: You know that new Sprint ad that mentions having 4G? That's WiMax, but it's only in Baltimore. There's also a school in Taiwan and a few other potential hotspots.
Looking ahead: There's a bit of a 4G battle simmering between WiMax and a competing technology called LTE. Sprint and Intel are the major backers of WiMax, while AT&T and Verizon have each committed to LTE. Again, it's hard to say if these cellular-oriented technologies will really replace our home broadband systems.
LTE (Long Term Evolution)
Top speed: 100 megabits per second (theoretical, but unlikely)
How it works: LTE is a 4G wireless technology that could potentially let you stream HD video and perform other ultra-broadband tasks from mobile devices. First it just needs to exist.
Market penetration: Nil.
Looking ahead: As I said above, this one has a lot of potential, not just because of its blazing speeds but also because of its support from AT&T, Verizon and other telecoms that see it as the bright and wondrous future of wireless access. At least until something better comes along.
I'm sure I've missed (and oversimplified) quite a few things, so let me know all about it in the comments.