Broadband Battlefield

Many fundamental aspects of life in the 20th century, such as electricity, radio, the telephone, and computers, had their beginnings at the end of the

Many fundamental aspects of life in the 20th century, such as electricity, radio, the telephone, and computers, had their beginnings at the end of the 19th century. So it seems reasonable to imagine that the seeds of the technology that will influence society in the 21st century have been sewn over the last decade or so. One of these seeds is certainly the Internet, which will undoubtedly grow to become as ubiquitous as television and telephones are today.

Before that can happen, however, access to the Internet must speed up dramatically. There are several technologies aimed at bringing broadband (high-speed) Internet access into the home. For example, standard phone lines can accommodate digital subscriber line (DSL) technology, which carries data to the end user at up to 8 Mbps (see "Tech Page: The Need for Speed," in the March 1997 EM), although most affordable subscription packages provide rates of no more than 1.5 Mbps. Among other factors, the practical speed depends on your physical distance from the phone company's switching center and the type of DSL that is being used.

Cable modems use television cable connections to download data at a theoretical maximum rate of 30 Mbps, but many users experience 300 to 400 Kbps, at best, from their cable ISP. In addition, cable access is shared among all subscribers in a neighborhood, which can further reduce its effective bandwidth for each user. And with most DSL and cable modem services, uploading is typically much slower than downloading.

With current technology, the ultimate wired connection would be fiber-optic cable that reaches all the way into the home. This type of cable can carry data at 100 Mbps or faster, but it is still prohibitively expensive to equip most homes with a fiber-optic connection. As a result, cable modems employ a hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) system, which uses the cable company's fiber-optic backbone as a distribution conduit and standard copper coaxial cable to carry data "the last mile" into each home.

To avoid the pitfalls of wired connections, some companies are turning to wireless satellite communications. One promising possibility is the use of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites less than 1,000 miles above the ground. Various companies are planning LEO systems with an aggregate bandwidth of 1 Gbps. However, all satellites deployed for individual use are likely to be limited only to downloading for the foreseeable future: because terrestrial transmitters remain very costly, uploading will still require some form of slower, wired connection.

Despite the advances in network access speeds, all users will face a number of practical limits. For example, most current PCs are limited to a 10 Mbps ethernet link (although this should increase to 100 Mbps or more as 100BaseT ethernet or the IEEE 1394 spec become more commonplace). Other limits include network processing times and, ultimately, the speed of light, both of which place an unavoidable boundary on download times no matter what access method is used (see Fig. 1).

What does all of this mean to musicians? High-quality, real-time audio will certainly be available through any broadband conduit once current speeds increase even slightly. CD stereo audio requires 1.4 Mbps, as does 5.1-channel DTS audio, while 5.1-channel Dolby Digital audio uses only 640 Kbps or less. Because of this, I fully expect to see real-time, interactive, online CD previewing and ordering in the near future.

The Internet has already become a very important medium for musicians of all persuasions. But just imagine a future in which Web access is hundreds of times faster than it is today. High-quality music will be easily available-and I suspect that we'll need it more than ever to soothe the savage breast in the social upheaval that will surely result from this quantum leap in information overload.