Internet World: Broadband on a roll

To judge by the scene at Spring Internet World this week, we might already be living in a broadband world.

High-speed Internet access, otherwise known as broadband, is one of the major undercurrents of the show. It's spawned forums devoted to media convergence and Internet video, and prompted scores of broadband-related product announcements.

Of course, many of these issues and products won't be practical for the average consumer inside of three years. But Internet companies aren't letting that faze them. The attitude seems to be, "Broadband is practically here; the rest is just details."

"[Broadband] sounds like more of an inevitability than an innovation," said Jack Powers, Internet World conference chairman. "The impediments are not technological, it's just, 'Who's your cable system? Who's your telco?' "

The main points of debate at the conference this week in Los Angeles will be not whether high-speed Internet will ever become common, but what such a system will look like, Powers said. "What people are really arguing about is whether a true broadband world will mean 500 channels online, or, what I think it's going to be, something more complex that integrates TV," he said. The conference will include sessions on the convergence of the TV, the PC and the Web, rich media advertising, and a "streaming media developer day" focused on Internet-based audio and video.

Broadband has recently led to some shakeups in the offline world, especially the traditional media business. The MP3 compression format has come to attention as an efficient -- if bandwidth-intensive -- way of distributing CD-quality music over the Internet, and the format went portable with the introduction of Diamond Multimedia Inc.'s Rio MP3 player.

Tuesday Microsoft Corp. will unveil its own alternative to MP3, called Microsoft Audio 4.0, which offers some size and quality advantages over the more established format.

Creative Labs plans to officially release Nomad, its own digital audio player line, on Wednesday at the show although the launch was scheduled for Monday.

Providers of streaming media technology are responding to the emergence of broadband by introducing scalability into their products. GEO Interactive Media Group Ltd., for example, is following the lead of RealNetworks Inc. by introducing an Internet audio platform that senses how fast your connection is, and scales to match.

While the new product, Emblaze On Demand, can deliver CD-quality sound over broadband connections, it can also make passable music over a 28.8 modem, the company promises. "We have a considerable number of visitors to our site remaining on [slower] modems, and we have to create content they can view," said Walter Chefitz, Emblaze product manager.

But the richest of rich media might have to wait a while to find a mass market, analysts say. In a recent study, Jupiter Communications forecast that even by 2002 only 20 percent of U.S. households will be connected via such broadband technologies as DSL and cable modems. "Despite all the hype, broadband access is poised to fall short of expectations," wrote analysts Zia Daniell, Abhi Chaki and Ross Scott Rubin in the report, predicting that by 2002, "only 11.2 million broadband subscribers [will be online,] compared with 45.5 million dial-up subscribers."

Two points that might make the access gold rush pan out after all: First, those broadband subscribers will doubtless be the wealthiest segment of the Internet population, and second, there's already a pretty sizeable installed base of high-speed users in the office, analysts say.

Office workers in particular could present a lucrative market for entertainment and information in the form of high-quality video and audio, according to Rob Enderle, analyst with Giga Information Group. "As long as a company's revenue plan doesn't presuppose that 50 or 80 percent of the people are going to have broadband ... then I think the revenue model is sustainable," he said.

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