Broadband cable access growth has slowed, while DSL is growing. But cable-TV high-speed Internet connections still lead DSL by about two to one. A recent FCC ruling allows the major carriers to charge competitors what they want to access their lines. While this restricts competition, at least the effect has been to allow the major carriers to roll out DSL in those areas where they can make a buck. DSL is still slower than cable unless you are very close to the central office or one of those neighborhood hubs that are appearing in some areas. But at least you get a dedicated line, which you don’t get with cable. DSL chip and equipment companies are working on newer, faster versions of DSL that will speed it up, but cable is expected to remain dominant.
Wireless is beginning to make progress in the broadband space. There are pockets of activity using IEEE 802.11b WLAN technology to provide high-speed connections in small cities or rural areas not served by cable or DSL. Fixed wireless broadband, which has been in limbo, is making a comeback. With improved technology, manufacturers recently formed WiMAX, a consortium to promote and facilitate point-to-multipoint wireless for Internet connections. The 802.16a standard that defines the fixed wireless service is sound, and once the business model for this market has been optimized, it will bring many new subscribers into the broadband fold. The expected applications for this technology are Internet access for the thousands of underserved small towns and rural areas without broadband and wireless connectivity for the growing number of Wi-Fi hot spots.
A newcomer in broadband access is the electric utility companies. Some of them are testing broadband access over power lines. While this technology is popular in home and industrial networks, it has not been optimized for the long haul, until now. New technology that helps to bypass the power transformers, the main roadblock to long-distance networking, has been perfected. Trials are being conducted in several eastern cities with some success. A power-line modem is slower than cable or DSL, but it’s cheaper, and it’s at least four times faster than dial-up. This is a technology to watch as your electric utility could also become your Internet utility.
Progress on high-speed last/first-mile connections also continues. The IEEE is hard at work on a first-mile Ethernet connection that is expected to become the 802.3ah standard. Carriers continue the limited adoption of passive optical networks for connections to new homes and businesses, but the technology isn’t there yet. The most promising systems use Ethernet and coarse wavelength-division multiplexing. Until such first/last-mile systems are available, cable will rule the roost.