Consumer Connectivity is Still Not Good Enough

There has been much talk about how quickly things are changing in the electronic business world, and how businesses need to evolve to support consumers online. I generally agree with that contention, but there’s an important piece missing from the picture: truly functional consumer networks. Before Web use becomes pervasive, full-time, high-speed connectivity into the home has to be a given, just as television or telephone access is today.

How many homes can you think of that have a functional network in place? I know of only a couple of individuals who have an extensive network at home, and even fewer that have a network that’s integrated into their home -- meaning cables in the walls and wiring all drawn to a central hub, with systems located throughout the house that use the network for more than printing.

Sure, if you buy a home in Seattle, Silicon Valley or another high-tech hotbed, you might get a home fully wired for Ethernet and probably sporting an existing cable modem or DSL line. But try getting these frills in Anytown, U.S.A.

At my home, I have always relied on a dial-up connection to reach the outside world, which on a good day in my neck of the woods is limited to about 24 Kbps. The time finally came to pay for a faster connection, but I soon found out I might as well live in Antarctica -- at least from a connectivity perspective. I’m not living out in the middle of Montana; I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia, within easy commuting distance of Philadelphia and Trenton and, and somewhat longer commute to New York.

Although my house is wired for cable, the local cable company does not offer cable modem service to my area. In fact, the cable modem service they offer is so limited that there is no support in any towns within about 20 miles of my home.

Forget DSL. The 18,000-foot distance limitation from a local central office knocks my home out of contention. ISDN, with its significantly longer 36,000-foot maximum, was the other option. Since it’s my only remaining choice, it’s now my best choice. The downside is that it’s going to cost me more dollars per month for less time, with performance about one-fifth as fast as DSL would have been.

I’ll have an opportunity to do things that weren’t possible at 28.8 Kbps from home, but it is costing me: $500 up front to implement ISDN, with an expected $50 to $80 monthly fee. This service had better be good.

At last month’s Networld+Interop show, there was a lot of wireless technology on display. Some proponents predict wireless devices, particularly handheld devices, will be the solution to instant access from anywhere. Maybe they’re right, but my digital cell phone -- my favorite wireless device -- is still anything but infallible. It does not work reliably when I’m in the fringe areas of coverage or when I venture out fishing more than a few miles offshore. I don’t plan to discard the aging two-way VHF-FM marine radios on my boat anytime soon.

We’ve come a long way in remote connectivity, but before the world is truly a connected place and bandwidth ceases to be a constraint, these persistent obstacles need to be overcome. The regional phone and cable companies don’t seem concerned about servicing areas where lower population density translates to less profitable returns. If that is the case, the foot-dragging ensures a painfully slow transition. We may still be unconnected 10 years from now, unless we can improve the service reach, lower the cost and make it easy to implement.