Earlier this week there was a report on the rapid growth of broadband high-speed internet hook-ups during the last year. The numbers are impressive and speak to the widening demographic and economic base of broadband users.
According to a survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, broadband adoption increased 59% among households with incomes between $30,000 – 50,000 from March 2005 to March 2006. It increased 40% in households earning less than $30,000 and increased 121% in black households. This is incredible growth in economic and demographic segments that had here to fore been lagging far behind more upscale homes and white households. One of the reasons for this is the drop in pricing for both DSL and cable. Middle and lower income households still lag behind more affluent ones with the $30-50k households at 43% compared to 68% penetration in households with more than $75,000 annual income. Overall, 42% of adult Americans have broadband at home, compared to 30% a year ago. This means that we can expect penetration to exceed the key 50% threshold in the next year.
To put these numbers in perspective, the only comparable periods of new media growth on a percentage basis were the early 1950s with TV and the late 1990s with dial-up Internet. When you factor in the fact that there are almost twice as many households in the US today as there were in 1950, the growth in actual number of households is certainly one of the greatest single year growth records for a new medium in US history. When you compare the 43% total broadband households with the 4% in 2000 it becomes clear that we are in the midst of explosive growth. This is on top of the estimated 70% of US employees who have access to broadband at work and the millions of college students who have access in campuses across the United States. We have entered the age of broadband……finally!
Why do I say finally? Well, for me the experience of reading these numbers was almost one of deja vu and not surprising in the least. As far back as 1998 I was giving speeches saying that the power of the Internet would not begin to be realized until broadband had reached critical mass of 40-60%. I was saying this at a time when people were marveling at the revolutionary power of the Internet, even when the general experience of it was with slow dial-up. When asked when the US, which still lags behind a number of other countries in broadband penetration, might reach this critical mass, my best guess was “sometime during the first decade of the new millennium”. When one expects something to happen for such a long time, when it actually does happen, it is no big deal. It is almost as though the expectation was the experience, and the actual reality just confirmation.
Why was I so sure, and why is the current growth of broadband so incredibly exciting?
I was sure because I am a student of the history of media. Each new media that comes along expands upon all prior media, in terms of function and effect. The first mass media was the book, which came about because of Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press. Manuscripts that had been read by hundreds of people were now books read by millions of people. This lead to the next print medium, which was the newspaper, which allowed people to read about events that they hadn’t experienced, which created a larger sense of community than could be created by word of mouth. The newspaper was follwed by the magazine, which basically brought pictures and color to print media. Then came radio which was the first non-print medium. As such, it brought sound to the equation and thus allowed information and entertainment to move immediately through the air. Live radio programs created communities that were no longer geographically limited. Then came television, which added sight and motion to the base of sound of radio, thus expanding electronic media exponentially. It could be argued that television was the single most influential cultural force of the second half of the 20th century. It was the beginning of the global village as described by Marshall McLuhan. Then came cable television, which brought the concept of targeted audience programming to television yet continued to add to the mass of the medium. So, each new medium added to and expanded on all prior media.
When the Internet became a mass media in the 1990s the revolutionary potential was obvious. What bothered me however, was that in appearance and in delivery of content, it was more like newspapers and magazines, without any of the innovations of radio, television and cable television. Everything on the Internet at this time looked like newspapers and magazines; everything was text or still pictures, everything was columns, squares, oblongs and static on the page. This broke the historical precedent of each media building upon and expanding all prior media. It was puzzling. Then when I was introduced to the concept of bandwidth and speed of data transmission i had the aha! moment: when the ‘pipes’ broaden, then video can be viewed real time! That is when the Internet can begin to fully reach it’s potential, when it is in a fully broadband environment. An analogy might be the launch of communications satellites in the 1960s and 1970s and what they did for communications.
So, to paraphrase Samuel Beckett, I’ve been ‘waiting for broadband’ as a student of media. That is why I was so sure.
Now, why is broadband so exciting? From my vantage point it is because it is the first new medium in the history of humanity that can fully replicate and fully deliver the promise of all prior media. One can read newspapers and magazines on-line. Once can listen to radio on-line. One can watch television and cable television on-line. That alone is exciting, that all prior media is contained within broadband Internet. What is really exciting, revolutionary and transformative however is the fact that it is the first medium without content and distribution gate keepers. Everyone can post words, music, discussion, pictures and video on-line for all the world to consume. It has become, as I suggested it would years ago, the first one-to-many, many-to-one, one-to-several and one-to-one medium in the history of humanity.
Now that is something that makes a futurist get weak in the knees when thinking about its potential in and for the future.