The term "Internet connectivity" refers to the way people are hooked up to the Internet, and may include dial-up telephone lines, always-on broadband connections, and wireless devices. Among these, wireless access to the Internet is the newest and, as of the early 2000s, had only reached a small group of users. Broadband connections, including DSL (digital subscriber line), ADSL (asymmetrical DSL), and cable modems, were becoming more widespread, but still represented a small percentage of Internet users. A study by Nielsen/NetRatings covering the year 2000 found that more than 85 percent of home-based users connected to the Internet with ordinary telephone modems ranging from 28.8 Kbps (thousands of bits per second) to 56 Kbps. Only 6.4 percent had high-speed Internet access, while 8.3 percent were still using 14.4 Kbps telephone modems.
Since the early days of the Internet, connectivity for the typical user has improved markedly by offering greater speeds for data transmission and wider bandwidth to accommodate special services such as audio and video. In the consumer market, the first improvements were made in dial-up telephone connections, with modems increasing in speed from 14.4 Kbps to 56 Kbps. With the growth in popularity of the World Wide Web and its ever expanding stock of multimedia content, the need for more bandwidth and higher transmission speeds created new demand in households and small businesses for broadband alternatives, which until that time were common only in large corporations, universities, and government agencies.
Although broadband technology offered high-speed Internet access, consumers were initially slow to adopt it. While the greater bandwidth of a broadband connection allowed for more data to be transmitted at higher speeds than a conventional telephone line, most consumers were unwilling to pay $40 or more a month for broadband services that would enable them to view streaming media better or download Web pages faster. A mid-2001 report from Strategy Analytics predicted that by the end of 2001, 14.1 percent of all North American households would have a high-speed Internet connection, up from the 6 to 8 percent other studies reported for the end of 2000. By 2005, Strategy Analytics predicted the broadband user base would swell to 53 percent of North American households.
Broadband includes cable modem and DSL connections as well as alternative broadband technologies. Unlike telephone line connections to the Internet, which typically involve dialing up, broadband connections are always on. DSL uses ordinary copper telephone lines to deliver a high-bandwidth connection to the Internet, with typical data transmission speeds ranging from 512 Kbps to 1.544 Mbps (millions of bits per second). However, DSL service requires a certain proximity to the DSL provider's central office, and DSL providers must set up several such offices to serve a large area. Cable modems are the most popular broadband connection among consumers. To provide high-speed Internet access over cable lines, cable system operators have had to upgrade their systems and replace old one-way lines with lines that can handle two-way traffic. Alternative broadband technologies, mostly used by businesses, include leased lines, frame relay, fiber optics, asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), T1 and T3 lines, and ISDN (integrated services digital network). High-speed Internet access is also available through satellite services, although the number of subscribers remains small in comparison to cable modem and DSL subscribers.
Wireless connectivity to the Internet was still in its infancy in the early 2000s, awaiting the development of new protocols, specifications, and next-generation technologies. While most personal computers could access virtually any Web site, wireless devices could not because wireless systems used a different method of encoding Web content. When several major online brokerage firms began offering wireless trading in 2000, the biggest barrier was that the brokers were not compatible with all types of devices and service providers. The preferred method of wireless access to online brokerages appeared to be through Web-enabled cell phones. In some cases brokers were able to negotiate with national cell phone providers such as Verizon Wireless, AT&T, or Sprint PCS to obtain a position on their Web-phone menus. Otherwise, customers would have to key in their broker's Web address on the phone's small keypad.
Mobile phones, pagers, and personal digital assistants (PDAs) all offer limited wireless access to the Internet. But most of these do not offer the complete set of features users have on their PCs. Typically, wireless devices are used to retrieve e-mail and obtain a range of news, sports, stocks, weather, and local information. Cell phones enabled for Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), for instance, are used to retrieve e-mail as well as information from selected Web sites. For the most part, however, mainstream devices' small screens make it difficult, if not impossible, to surf the Internet and fill out the forms necessary to shop online. Device manufacturers have responded with innovations designed to make the wireless Internet experience easier. For example, Palm, maker of popular PDAs and related devices, introduced the M105 PDA, which included pre-installed Internet connectivity software that enabled users to check e-mail and surf the wireless Web through a compatible mobile phone.
Wireless connectivity to the Internet represented a small fraction of home-based Internet users in the United States and other countries at the end of 2000. According to a study by the Nomura Research Institute and reported by eMarketer, 2 percent of users who accessed the Internet from home in the United States had a wireless connection, compared to 92.1 percent having a landline connection. According to another study by Connecticut-based research firm Robert Francis Group, data accounted for less than 2 percent of mobile wireless traffic in early 2001. With wireless access to the Internet still in the early adopter stage, projections of future growth varied widely. A February 2001 eWireless Report from eMarketer found that estimates of wireless Internet users by 2004 ranged from 17 million to 161 million. One reason for such discrepancies was that there was not a large enough base of users to project from.
Wireless high-speed Internet access in public places began expanding in 2001. Public wireless access, designed for locations such as airport terminals, sports arenas, shopping malls, coffee shops, and convention floors, requires a base station that include a small transceiver and a broadband connection. An article in the New York Times predicted that there would be wireless access points installed in 5,000 Starbucks stores sometime in 2002.
These access points are able to transmit and receive data wirelessly using a technology standard called 802.11 for Windows and AirPort for Apple computers. Computers with an AirPort or 802.11 card installed have a ready, high-speed wireless Internet connection without any additional plug-ins. Users need to be within a few hundred feet or so of an access point to tap into a wireless network. Users can then send e-mail or visit Web sites. Most access points are expected to be commercial in nature, charging a monthly or one-time fee.
Barriers to roaming wireless access from a laptop computer have included the lack of a single standard and competition among providers. Competing standards meant that users might need to have two or three wireless standards to stay connected while traveling. Until roaming agreements were in place among competing providers, users might find that one provider's service was available in some airports but not in others.
CONNECTING OVER ELECTRICAL POWER LINES
Electrical power lines offer the possibility of high-speed Internet access. With such access, households and buildings with multiple users would be able to access the Internet through power sockets. In the first quarter of 2001, Germany's biggest power utility, RWE, announced it would offer PowerNet—high-speed Internet access over electrical power lines—to some 20,000 customers by the end of the year in association with Swiss partner Ascom. The announcement came just after German electronics and engineering company Siemens said it would withdraw from the development of power line access.
With transmission speeds of up to two megabits per second, an electrical power line connection can process e-mail at rates 30 times faster than an ISDN connection. MP3 music files can be downloaded in less than 20 seconds over a power line connection. The increased bandwidth of a power line connection enables it to handle a higher volume of Internet traffic as well as more complex services, such as data, video, and audio, and even 3-D shopping.
Power line access faces several technological and regulatory hurdles before it becomes a reality. German officials had not yet given regulatory approval to Internet access over power lines. Technological hurdles are complicated by electrical transformers and other equipment. In developing countries, where electricity is more widespread than telephone connections, Internet access over electrical power lines could result in much greater Internet usage. In developed nations, Internet access over electrical power lines could provide a new revenue stream to electrical utility companies.
However, as of mid-2001 both Nortel and Siemens had abandoned the electrical power line market. One factor affecting their decision may have been that power lines are considered a "noisy" medium with fewer capabilities than copper loops, wireless, and cable systems. Siemens, for its part, planned on focusing its efforts on traditional broadband access over telephone lines.
The future of Internet connectivity may be revealed in Internet2, an experimental high-speed network launched in the mid-1990s. The speed with which data, audio, and video can be transmitted over Internet2 boggles the imagination. A comparison of how long it would take to download a DVD version of a typical 2-hour movie showed that it would take approximately 171 hours over a 56K modem, 74 hours over an ISDN line, 25 hours with a DSL or cable modem connection, 6.4 hours with a T1 line, and only 30 seconds over Internet2.
Internet2 has been in development since 1996 and is supported by a nonprofit consortium of 185 universities and research institutions. By 2001 the initial phase of the ultra-fast, high-bandwidth network was in place. Although still only in the demonstration phase, Internet2 transmission speeds are expressed in gigabits, or billions of bits per second (Gbps). The backbone of the system was provided by Qwest Communications, which offered access to 10,000 miles of its advanced fiber-optic network. Nortel Networks and Cisco Systems provided computer and networking equipment, and each of the consortium members committed to installing fiber-optic hookups to the system.
With the backbone in place, the Internet2 consortium planned next to test its reliability, develop middleware to provide interoperability between the network and specific applications, and to expand access to thousands of educational institutions and to other parts of the world, including Central and South America and the Caribbean. One of the applications already demonstrated on Internet2 was interactive medicine, in which a physician in Washington, D.C., directed surgery taking place in Columbus, Ohio. In another application, symphony musicians in Atlanta and Miami were able to practice together in real time over Internet2. Within five years, consortium leaders predicted that Internet2 would impact Internet access from the home.
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SEE ALSO: Bandwidth; Bandwidth Management; Broadband Technology; Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)