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August 25, 2009 12:30 PM

Most People Don't Understand Broadband Or Bandwidth

A couple of days ago I was chatting with a friend when something he said stopped me in my tracks and made me realize something profound: most people don't understand broadband or bandwidth.

Our conversation dealt with plans for this weekend's fantasy football draft, which will be at his place in Minnesota. Given that we were going to have a dozen guys with laptops all wanting to get online at the same time, I asked him what his broadband situation was.

His first response, "What do you mean?"

So I continued, "How do you get onto the Internet?"

Now this friend has gone through periods of his life where the answer would've been by jumping onto any neighboring unsecure network, but I knew he was paying someone for access nowadays, so his answer was somewhat surprising: "Wireless."

I had to inquire further, "Do you mean the Wi-Fi network they're building in Minneapolis? A 3G provider like Verizon or AT&T;? Or what?"

His response? "Comcast."

As I know Comcast isn't offering a wireless product in his area, it dawned on me that the "wireless" he was referencing was his Wi-Fi router. But he's actually getting his broadband through a cable modem.

By this point I was able to breath a sigh of relief as pretty much all cable networks give you at least a few Mbps of downstream bandwidth. I was dreading the possibility of everyone trying to share a basic DSL line at less than 1Mbps.

But I had to ask further: "So what speed do you subscribe to?"

He paused and said, "I don't know. Whatever they give me."

I guffawed, gasped, and asked incredulously: "What do you mean you don't know how much bandwidth you're paying for?"

He says, "Give me some options to pick from."

In other words, he really had no idea.

What's so remarkable about this conversation is that most people would assume my friend would know this kind of stuff, that since he's under 30 he'd be hardwired for the Internet and completely comfortable with talking about it.

And to a degree he is. He's completely comfortable using the Internet, whether it be to watch videos, follow live sports scores, look up information, purchase things, and communicate with others. He's been using the Internet for more than a decade now, so he should be.

Yet, he's pretty much totally oblivious to this language of bandwidth, bits, and bytes. And he certainly doesn't know anything about bandwidth caps or traffic shaping.

What strikes me about this is the ramifications it holds for how much work there is to do in getting the public to understand the significance of the issues we're debating in broadband policy, which I consider to be important given that it's the public that we're all ultimately trying to help through encouraging the availability and adoption of broadband.

This friend of mine is at least in the top 60% of Americans in terms of understanding the value of broadband because he's a paying subscriber.

While I harped on him for not knowing how much broadband he has, he then asked the question: "Isn't there somewhere I can go to test my speed?" The fact that he knew to ask this combined with the fact that he does use the Internet a lot probably puts him upwards of the top 25-30% of households in terms of broadband awareness, especially when you factor in that many households only have one power user and multiple non- or low-users.

So if he doesn't know how much broadband he has, that probably means the vast majority of Americans are completely unaware of the concept of bandwidth and that they're paying different amounts for different levels of access to the Internet, other than the basic distinction between broadband and dialup.

The reason I found this conversation so staggering is that I hadn't realized just how far we have to go in terms of raising public awareness about the principles of broadband to the general public.

But it was also a good thing to have to come to grips with as it's reshaping my perception of and adding urgency to the need to overcome this gap in the American public's understanding of broadband.

It shows that when making broadband policy, we can't assume that the public knows what we're talking about, or even that they're acting as well-informed buys in the broadband marketplace. For most people, broadband's just a faster way to get onto the Internet than dialup.

And because the public doesn't understand bandwidth and why they'd need/want more, it makes it that much more difficult to spark a nationwide movement demanding networks be built with greater capacity.

So a key cornerstone of any effort to change America's broadband future, must be recognizing how much work needs to be done educating the public about broadband and committing ourselves to overcoming these challenges.

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Comments (1)

While I sympathize with your surprise, I doubt that user education is going to be the solution.

The big providers of internet connectivity know we have graduated to the marketing game. It's now all about how ads and sound bites grab people.

Sure folks know they want broadband internet access, but beyond the buzzwords they have no clue what's up. so they can be sold anything up to and including a bill of goods.

Back in the days when the monthly Boardwatch was a going concern under Jack Rickard, the magazine made rough measurements quarterly of the performance of the big players. These tests clearly demonstrated one company's advertised Mbps wasn't equivalent to other companys' claimed performance numbers. I don't recall the company that helped with these measurements, but they had many measurement locations across the country and churned out some interesting data.

They gathered this data due to the (internet-) age old question of, "what network performance do I get for my dollar?" Internet carriers became very difficult to pin down on this question for the services that replaced dial-up access (where it had been pretty clear what was promised and what was delivered).

The reason early customers wanted answers is that they understood broadband meant bandwidth shared with other customers in the area, and that it was likely the network performance would fall for them as more customers signed up for the "high-speed" service.

These customers wanted to know they weren't being overbooked. Well good luck! These customers were stonewalled by the carriers and any public service regulators that were asked about the coming trouble didn't understand any more than today's new customers understand about broadband, bandwidth or latency.

What was the result of the overbooking? We have to hear the carriers whine about high loads on their networks and the need to raise charges so they can build out more capacity.

Methinks they doth protest too much...

I think we have to join the marketing game to be able to influence the community. The outcome will not be determined by reasoned argument.

Posted by Mark Walker on August 26, 2009 3:13 PM

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