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Demographic and Social Trends in the Broadband Home

📄 Contents

  1. Broadband's Liberation from the PC
  2. The Anthropology of Always-On
  3. Summary
Who uses broadband, what do they use it for, and how have "always on" connections changed the habits of connected families? This sample chapter examines demographic and social trends of broadband households.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

NOW, A COUPLE OF words about those broadband people: They're busy - Title Page

Now, a couple of words about those broadband people: They're busy.

Like the widespread availability of electrical power did to communities in the early 1900s, the infiltration of broadband into the home is starting to change the way people live and behave. Electricity gave us home washing machines, refrigeration, and the ability to sustain light long into the night. Broadband provides millions of residential users with the tools to learn, work, interact, and communicate in new ways.

Kevin Brinks is one of these residential users. A work-at-home sales representative who sells high-technology image scanners, Brinks is a member of the broadband revolution. Armed with a high-speed DSL connection that's fed through a home network to four PCs within his house, he routinely transmits large data files to clients from his basement office in a matter of seconds. "With dialup, that was taking me 25 minutes each time," Brinks says.

What's equally notable is the influence of the broadband "always-on" connection on his family. From a downstairs bedroom, Brinks' teenage son plays video games on the Internet with opponents who live miles—or even continents—away. His wife, Kati, has become accustomed to checking a PC perched in the living room several times a day to read e-mails and surf the Internet for everyday information (such as weather reports, movie listings, and more). "Any time she wants to research anything—local information or whatever—she just pops on there, types a couple of keywords, and moves on," says Brinks.

Although they might not realize it, the Brinks family of suburban Denver is part of a revolution changing the way people work, learn, and communicate. Broadband connectivity inspires changes in the way millions of worldwide users conduct their daily affairs.

It's also encouraging them to spend more time roaming the world of interactive media at large. Compared with people who connect to the Internet in the old-fashioned narrowband way, broadband users are online more, and when they are online, they do more. For one thing, broadband users are big consumers of entertainment and information that's streamed over the Internet. A growing bounty of this material is available, ranging from breaking news reports to hundreds of live radio feeds from stations around the world. Studies show that broadband users are far more apt than dialup users to tune in. Also, broadband users are fast becoming notorious for the penchant of downloads—music, software, and more—that can be captured more quickly, thanks to broadband's faster data rates.

A taste for streaming audio and file downloads is just one characteristic that defines the growing broadband community. Another striking finding of one research effort into broadband behaviors is that people who have broadband at home spend nearly as much time on the Internet as they do watching television or listening to the radio (about 21 percent of their total daily "electronic media time"). That's a big departure from households with narrowband Internet access, who typically spend just 11 percent of their electronic media usage on the Internet, according to a 2000 study by the media research firm Arbitron. The survey of 3,283 people, called "The Broadband Revolution: How Superfast Internet Access Changes Media Habits in American Households," found that people in broadband households spent an average of 134 minutes daily on the Internet. That's 61 percent more time than the 83 minutes per day spent by people in dialup households.

Before we draw any breathless conclusions about the broadband user revolution, note that broadband users tend to be younger, better educated, and earn higher incomes than people with dialup. Those factors might have some bearing on the behaviors exhibited by the broadband community. But, let's not quibble too much. Anyone who has been liberated from long file-download times and poor playback of streaming audio or video can readily understand why broadband users would want to partake of these features more frequently. Over broadband, downloads actually work well.

The disparities between broadband users and dialup Internet users are even more dramatic when viewed by age. The most prolific broadband users are 18 to 24 year-olds, who report that they spend three hours a day on the Internet, according to a 2001 follow-up study from Arbitron.

As you'd imagine, the notion that broadband compels people to spend more time on the Internet and relatively less time with television has sent many a television-programming executive into panic mode. Television networks and programmers have scurried to develop business models that might allow them to retain their traditional presence in the daily lives of consumers, whether that happens to occur through television or through broadband. A similar search for presence on the new broadband platform has occurred in the movie and music industries, with no one yet having claimed the perfect business model. (One comforting fact for captains of the television industry, perhaps, is the finding that broadband users tend to be incorrigible multitaskers: Twenty-five percent of the respondents to the Arbitron 2002 study reported that they frequently watch television while using the Internet.)

But driving people from the tube isn't the only thing broadband seems to accomplish. With fast access to Internet content and—importantly—easier ways to contribute their own content to others, broadband users have truly become a unique breed. Compared to "average" Internet users, they tend to do more activities with the Internet, do them more frequently, and do them for longer periods of time. As Table 5-1 shows, a substantially higher percentage of broadband users engage in virtually every type of online activity when compared to dialup users.

Table 5-1 An Average Day for Internet Users


Broadband Users*

Dialup Users*





Instant messaging



Chat rooms



Information seeking




Job-related research



Look for product information



For school or training



Look for travel information



Look for medical information



Information producing

Share computer files with others



Create content (such as web pages or post to bulletin boards)



Display/develop photos



Store files on Internet




Download games, videos, pictures



Download music



Download movies



Media streaming



Watch video clips



Listen to music/radio stations



Watch movies




Bank online /pay bills online



Buy a product



Buy a travel service



Participate in auctions



Buy groceries/household goods



Buy/sell stocks






Entertainment activities

Hobby information



Browse just for fun



Play a game



Visit adult websites



* % of each group who engage in various Internet activities on a typical day online.

Source: Home Broadband Users, Pew Internet & American Life Project. February 2002 Survey.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project, which is based on telephone interviews with 507 adult Internet users in early 2002, represents one of the most penetrating looks into the way broadband users interact with the network. Authors John Horrigan and Lee Rainie identified three primary features of home broadband users:

  • They create and manage their own content—One of the positively inspiring aspects of broadband is its ability to encourage users not only to consume content, but to create it.

  • About 40 percent of broadband users have been creating their own content for publication over the Internet (in the form of personal or family websites and online diaries), according to Pew's study. On an average day, 17 percent of broadband users share data files (photos, documents, and music) with others. In each instance, these behaviors occur more frequently with broadband users than dialup users. "People are not passive recipients of media," noted Rainie, director of the Pew Internet study on broadband users, "They are creators and distributors, too."

    Broadband's capability to make it easier to distribute large and small files might be inspiring a rebirth of the Internet's original promise: to provide a peer-to-peer network that enables users to easily share information. With a rising corporate and organizational influence, the Internet has become largely a client/server model, wherein large numbers of users extract data from centralized web servers (think Amazon.com). Broadband won't do away with the client/server model by a long stretch, but it does present a platform that makes it more likely that users will increasingly stamp their individual imprint over the network. The rise of sophisticated classification systems that make it easy to search for and download music recordings from user communities is living proof that broadband and related new applications have facilitated this migration from client/server to peer-to-peer computing.

  • They use their always-on connections to satisfy their queries—The Pew Internet authors found that the persistent connection offered by broadband enables users to turn to the Internet for all sorts of information needs. Sixty-eight percent of broadband users say that they do more information searching online because of their always-on, high-speed connection.

  • About 90 percent of users said the Internet has improved their ability to learn new things, and nearly 50 percent said that the Internet has improved their ability to get health-care information. In each instance, when compared to dialup users, broadband users are more apt to credit the Internet with helping them get information that's relevant to their lives. Lots of broadband users credit the always-on nature of broadband with making it easier to find information. There's something elegant and powerful about the ability to turn to the Internet on a whim, conduct a brief search, and find something out without having to endure the delay of initiating a new dialup session.

  • They do many activities online in a typical day—The high-speed connection enables broadband users to perform multiple tasks throughout the day.

  • Broadband users are online at least once a day, which is more than narrowband users. More than 80 percent of broadband users said they're online on a given day; only 58 percent of dialup users said the same.

When contrasting broadband users and dialup users, the downloading and file-sharing disparity is particularly acute.

For every one narrowband Internet user who downloads music or swaps files with others, there are approximately three broadband users who snatch music, movies, and other online content, or make files available to others. That's no surprise. At a broadband connection rate of 1 Mbps, downloading a three- or four-minute music "single" can be accomplished in 20 seconds or less. The same song would take four agonizing minutes to capture over a 56-kbps connection. It's as if broadband data rates have expanded the range of media and information we share and exchange—from simple text e-mails to peer-to-peer delivery of voice, video, and more.

The possibilities for even more enthusiastic usage rates for music become easy to contemplate as connection speeds rise over time. A broadband network operating at a super-fast data rate of 64 Mbps could deliver to you the entire contents of a 72-minute music album in about the same amount of time it would take to start your car's engine for a trip to the local record store—about five seconds. (Today, while music is feasible, downloaded movies are another story. Even with broadband connections of 1 Mbps, movies and long-form video can require hours to download, and remain more of a novelty than anything else.)

Broadband introduces a similar upswing in the use of so-called streaming content, which is material that comes across the network in real-time, just as a live television or radio broadcast does. Nearly one of every five broadband users in the Pew Internet study say that they routinely listen to streaming music or radio stations over the Internet. Just four percent of narrowband customers say the same.

What's apparent across all major studies of the broadband user is the sheer diversity of activities conducted online. The Pew survey shows that the average broadband user does seven things online daily, such as fetching news reports or sending photos to family members. The average dialup Internet user completes only three tasks on an average day.

But doing more activities online isn't the only attribute of merit for broadband users. Internet users with broadband connections say broadband improves their ability to do many things they're already familiar with in the online world. Table 5-2 shows how broadband users are more apt than slow-connection users to credit the Internet with improving various aspects of their lives.

Table 5-2 Making Life Better

How Much, If at All, Has the Internet Improved_

Broadband (Percentage Who Say "A Lot," or "Somewhat")

Dialup (Percentage Who Say "A Lot" or "Somewhat")

Your ability to learn new things



The way you pursue your hobby or other interests



Your ability to do your job



The way you get health-care information



The way you manage your personal finances



Your ability to connect organizations in your local community



Source: Home Broadband Users, Pew Internet & American Life Project. February 2002 Survey.

Those with a big economic stake in the future of the Internet have watched with keen interest the emerging portrait of the broadband user. Executives from America Online (AOL), which operates the single largest connection between the Internet and consumers, observes that, among other things, broadband users tend to grab bits and snippets of content and information from the network throughout the day, a behavior that the company's president, Jonathan Miller, labeled "information snacking" in a 2002 presentation to securities analysts. He's got a point. According to the Pew Internet study, 43 percent of broadband users go online several times a day; only 19 percent of dialup users log on more than once a day. Not only do the number of sessions increase with broadband, but the amount of time spent online and the number of web pages viewed also increases. Sean Kaldor, an executive with the measurement firm Nielsen//NetRatings, studied the behavior of a sample panel of Internet users who had upgraded from narrowband to broadband between December 2000 and May 2001. As Table 5-3 shows, the group's time spent on the Internet rose 70 percent—from a collective 26,000 hours to 44,000 hours.

Table 5-3 Upgrading to Broadband (Monthly Comparison)


Before Upgrade

After Upgrade

Difference (In Percentage)

Time spent online per person





Number of sessions




Number of pages




Total hours online




Source: Nielsen//NetRatings

To be sure, some habits and customs of the broadband household cannot be attributed purely to the availability of broadband. Broadband users in general, or at least the first and earliest adopters, tend to come from homes with higher annual incomes and with larger families than the prevailing norm. Even so, researchers believe that these demographic differences are less important in influencing online behavior than the presence of broadband. "The availability of a broadband connection is the largest single factor that explains the intensity of an online American's Internet use," the Pew study states.

A close look at the broadband user base, and what sorts of activities broadband users do online, supports a recent theory that is popular among analysts of the medium: No single "killer application" drives the use of broadband. In other words, combinations of a multitude of activities, ranging from consuming entertainment to communicating by e-mail or instant messages to buying goods online, are the byproducts of broadband access. Pew's study found that 61 percent of broadband users say they're spending more time online since discarding the old dialup modem and installing a broadband connection. Various applications are responsible for driving this increase in time spent on the Internet:

  • Thirty-one percent said the extra time comes from more information searching.

  • Nineteen percent said additional e-mailing soaked up their increased Internet time.

  • Fourteen percent said they were downloading more movies or music.

  • Thirteen percent said online shopping was the reason why they were on the network longer.

There is also a growing sense that broadband users are more apt than dialup users to be willing to spend money on online content. A January 2003 survey of Internet users in Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Sweden found that 18 percent of broadband users are willing to pay for video content compared to 11 percent of narrowband users. Broadband users also showed a greater willingness to pay for music and gaming content (reported the survey from Jupitermedia Corp).

Broadband's Liberation from the PC

As the data spin out before us, keep in mind the understanding that a substantial change in online-user behavior is occurring even under the current prevailing constraints on the broadband medium. From its inception to the current time, broadband has been provided almost exclusively as a personal-computer service. Nearly every residential broadband connection today is fed directly to a computer, and whether the application is a movie or an online shopping experience, it's rendered through the lens of a computer monitor.

The emerging broadband models look to the day when the broadband data gets liberated from the confines of the PC and roams freely throughout the household. This vision is encapsulated by the movement to something called the home network. It supposes that broadband ultimately finds its way into numerous information and communications appliances, and that broadband becomes not just a PC network, but a home-premises network, wherein a central-receiving device might distribute broadband throughout the home in the way that an electrical junction box distributes electricity to every room.


The analogy with electricity only goes so far. Some broadband users have expressed dissatisfaction with the speed and reliability of their connections, which suggests that broadband isn't yet on par with telephone services and electrical power regarding "forget-about-it" reliability.

Already, 69 percent of United States broadband users have multiple computers in the home, according to the Pew Internet study, and more than half of those households have some form of network that connects multiple computers.

More interesting is the notion, albeit further down the road, of allowing broadband to find its way into a broader array of appliances than just home computers, printers, and peripheral devices. A recent television commercial from the appliance-maker Whirlpool made the point clear. In it, a homeowner is surprised to find a refrigerator repairman at the doorstep. The refrigerator, linked to a broadband network, placed its own trouble call, prompting the onsite visit. Just idle speculation about a futuristic product? Nope. Magazine publisher Forbes reported the European appliance manufacturer Merloni Elettrodomestici of Fabriano has sold more than one million networked appliances (mostly washing machines) that can be controlled through the Internet.

Work is also progressing on the front lines of the much vaunted "convergence" movement, a place where a melding of functionality exists among computer-like devices and entertainment appliances, such as TV sets. For example, Software titan Microsoft and the PC maker Hewlett-Packard have collaborated on a computer called the Media Center PC that can act as a central repository for television and music content that can then be parceled out to networked devices in the home.

The point is, even given the fact that broadband is today imprisoned somewhat through the control of a single device—the PC—users have found a tremendous assortment of things to do with it, and are making meaningful changes in their daily media lives as a result. In fact, after it's in the house, broadband seems highly likely to remain. An April 2001 survey of DSL users by the telephone company SBC Communications found that 63 percent of customers claimed they'd give up their ritual morning coffee before yanking out the DSL line.

The Kitchen PC

The fully rendered home broadband network might not be here yet, but one of the fascinating early byproducts of broadband availability seems to be a redefinition of where the PC fits within the household or within the context of family.

If you own a PC, chances are it's perched comfortably on a desk somewhere in your home. After all, much of what we do over the computer is work. We review e-mail, manage budgets, type letters, and manage schedules. When we're done, we're done. We leave the PC and turn to more interesting and entertaining places in our homes.

The marriage of computers with desks, offices, and places where we typically work testifies to the fact that the PC is mainly associated with jobs and tasks. Even the growing popularity of streaming media and entertainment-oriented websites hasn't done much to move the computer from the office to the living room in most households.

The true information revolution will come when the PC, or some other device that accepts a broadband connection, migrates en masse to the most lived-in spaces of the household: the kitchen, den, living room, and bedroom. We spend most of our time in those places. Already, many first-generation broadband families enjoy broadband connectivity in these places, where you'll often find a desktop computer, laptop, a new wireless devices known as a web-pad (think of an electronic Etch-a-Sketch) or a detached laptop screen with touch-screen controls that connects wirelessly to a broadband network.

Having a computer in the kitchen hugely contrasts the typical PC-in-the-office scenario. But, remember that broadband doesn't merely replace a dialup, or narrowband, Internet connection. As we're starting to understand from the anthropology of the broadband household, broadband connections change the way people interact. In some ways, broadband seems to prompt entirely new behaviors and ways of responding to the myriad data streams that now ricochet about the home.

Suddenly, with broadband, PCs can drift from the office or den and mingle in all the right places. This mainstream emergence is more than symbolic. No longer imprisoned in spaces and rooms that are cut off from the remainder of the home, computing devices find new ways to flourish when they're integrated into spaces that are more fundamentally relevant to daily life.

The kitchen, a place where so much daily activity revolves, is particularly prominent in the new world of broadband communications. Outfitted with a broadband connection, a surprising number of users have seen fit to plop their computing devices in the center of the action, at a kitchen desk or makeshift workstation located somewhere between the toaster and the electric can-opener. There, a steady diet of brief encounters and on-the-fly grazing replaces, or at least supplements, the elongated sessions familiar to those of us who have known the Internet as a narrowband creature. For many families, locating the family PC in the kitchen has more to do with safeguarding their children from Internet ne'er do wells, certainly. But nonetheless, a PC in the kitchen, or in a centrally accessible room, is not a PC in a closed-off, remote room used for "work" computing.

Within broadband households, it's common to find users integrating the Internet in their lives in seamless, instinctive ways. We see adults, for example, casually checking over the morning's e-mail while they go about normal tasks to prepare for the day. While the toaster browns the bread, they get an early read on messages from the home office. Teens glance at local weather reports and (hoped-for) news of school closings on snowy winter mornings while searching for their lost pair of socks. In studies contrasting dialup Internet households with broadband households, a pronounced tendency is for the PC to become a more frequently used and widely shared resource.

This is hardly a puzzling phenomenon, of course. Dialup, narrowband users are accustomed to sitting before the computer, attempting to accomplish multiple tasks all in a single session that's bound by two identifiable events: signing on and signing off. There is a defined "start" and an equally apparent "finish" to the typical 40-minute dialup session. Between these two invisible bookends, we attempt to complete our online to-do list.

With broadband, you don't have any sign-on and sign-off periods. The concept of a "session" doesn't exist. The persistent broadband connection means that the network is available whenever you want it. New devices beginning to proliferate in the world of wireless networks illustrate this feature well. They don't need to boot up or go through a four-minute ritual of "coming to life." When you need them, they're there, connected to the network, and ready for you to use. Hand-held devices that gather your e-mail messages are a great example of this concept. They don't boot. They just respond to what you need, instantly.

Again, let's use a television analogy. The programs and channels available on television are, effectively, always available; they swirl invisibly around you as part of the radio frequency of a broadcast or satellite TV network (or tucked within the coaxial wiring of cable television). When you turn your television's "power" button on, images and sounds instantly greet you: The nightly news report. The rock concert. The laugh-track on a syndicated sitcom. The close-up of a flying lizard in a South American jungle. You don't wait for your television to muster a connection. You don't hear the electronic shriek of two modems engaging in a cyber-handshake to establish a dialogue.

In homes with broadband connectivity, you don't wait for the electronic handshake, and no noise signals the initiation of a connection. Silently, the network is ever-present, and so long as your broadband device is turned on, it's available to summon web pages, e-mails, instant messages, and more in the mere fraction of a second that it takes you to press a key or to move a mouse. As one SBC Communications consumer-survey respondent said, "My computer is on 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Broadband users seem willing to discard the idea that the web is a place full of destinations. Rather, it's a treasure of content that's already here—right now. Again, think of the television model. There's no need to consider television programs as resources that must be fetched from distant places. The fact is that they're right here in the living room, and the mere pressing of a button summons tonight's hockey game obligingly onto the screen. Similarly, broadband users seem to consider their favorite web pages and content providers as resources that are literally already resident in the home, just as common PC applications already reside in the computer.

Here's how one broadband user, interviewed for a study published by the former cable television company MediaOne, described the experience:

When I first got this service, I couldn't believe this was the Internet. I was in Netscape but it wasn't acting like it usually did_. Now, it just seemed too simple. Switching between (Microsoft) Word and the Internet was like changing channels on the television.

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