Why now is the time to factor broadband into your online thinking

High-speed internet connections – broadband – are more talked about than subscribed to. But while broadband penetration in most countries remains in single figures the rate of take-up is accelerating, especially among the well-to-do and influential. T

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This is the year to worry about broadband on your website. Will enough of your visitors use it to make it worth your while trying to exploit it? If so, how?
Three things are certain on the numbers:
– broadband penetration is growing fast;
– it is still minority sport in every country;
– and there is a huge variation between them.
The only countries with more than 10 broadband subscribers per 100 people (percentage penetration, more or less) are, according to Quantum-web (www.quantum-web.com), a specialist in broadband statistics, South Korea (23.0), Canada (15.0) and Taiwan (12.7). Figures for the big guys are: US, 8.5; Japan, 9.6; UK, 5.4; Germany, 5.0; France, 4.1; and Italy, 3.7.
In case from this you think Europe is much of a muchness, consider Ireland, where there were just 10,676 subscribers (penetration of 0.7 per cent) at the end of 2003 and Greece, with 7,567 (0.07 per cent penetration). All figures are either end of Q3 actual numbers or end of Q4 estimates and based on the service providers’ numbers.
In short, broadband is miles away from being mass market. On the other hand, it is growing fast – very fast in some places. Growth in subscriber numbers in the fourth quarter of 2003 alone was on Quantum-web’s figures at least 5 per cent in all but a handful of countries: US, 6.9 per cent; UK, 11.3 per cent; Italy 14.2 per cent; and so on.
Add the likelihood that broadband will be concentrated in richer and more influential audiences, and also the de facto broadband provided by office leased line networks, and the argument for treating broadband users as important targets becomes much stronger..

Here and now benefits

Your site will of course benefit from broadband simply by loading faster, although some are amazingly slow on a 576 Kbps link. But assuming you know all the tips of tricks of rapid loading, what else can you do?
Some things are obvious. The web has until now been a multimedia medium more in theory than practice – anything beyond sound and simple animation stretches a modem-delivered site beyond its natural comfort zone. Narrowband video has the sophistication of cinema circa 1900 – tolerable if it is the finance director delivering the bad news in an investor relations site, laughable if it is a car company showing of its latest promo video. Add broadband, and it all changes.
To see the difference, look at the BT Openworld trailer section (from www.btopenworld.com) – it provides an option for broadband (330k) and narrowband (30k) for both Real Player and Windows Media. Narrowband is no fun; broadband is great fun – it’s as simple as that.

The really big leap forward

But video is obvious. The real benefit of broadband is where it transforms the whole nature of a site – turning it from a set of static pages into a ‘multimedia experience’. For some organisations this will be quite inappropriate – a pretentious waste of money. But take a look at just the following site, using broadband, and see if it starts you wondering… ‘how could we use this?’.
The site (or rather portal) belongs to Nasa, the US’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and is a marvellous construction spoiled only by an assumption that every visitor has a high speed connection. Using a modem, the temporary M2K4 Mars page (M2K4 is Nasa-speak for 2004) took 50 seconds to load; clicking the “go to main Nasa site” link added another 50 seconds as the Mars logo loaded again. There was no way to bypass these delays. But using broadband, the irritations disappear and you will find myself in a quite different type of website.
The rule with Flash must be ‘use it only if there is a good reason’. The number of sites that send text and images flying around pointlessly is still depressingly high. Nasa uses Flash for some animation (the spinning red planet in the background is an impressive effect), but much more to add space-age class. The links click or buzz as you move the cursor over them, images change instantly with a muted bleep: it is all very Star Trek. Life is imitating fiction, and it works. None of the changes is obvious, or even big, but together they make a huge difference: the site feels as though it is alive, and therefore exciting.
There are three useful lesson from Nasa:
– broadband can transform Flash from a clever-clever irritant into a purveyor of real class
– you really must provide an alternative;
– broadband opens up possibilities for an entirely different type of website.
Your mission now, should you choose to accept it, is to assemble a team that is visually brilliant, technically outstanding and that understands your business and its needs. Oh, and it should be able to think laterally too. Good luck.

First published 28 January, 2004
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