Most of the estimated 40 million people using the Internet do so with a low-speed telephone connection. The speed of most of this type of access is limited to about 28,800 bits per second (bps). This low access speed, for most Internet users, translates directly into time.
Speed of access is the top complaint of users. The Internet is too slow to retrieve information when it is desired.
As more people gain access to the Internet, the information superhighway slows down with traffic jams.
The primary problem causing slow connections is the use of dial-up modems connected to traditional analogue telephone lines.
To remedy this problem, cable-television companies and electronics manufacturers have begun to develop broadband coaxial RF modems, or cable modems.
With cable modems, users can access the Internet almost 350 times faster than with dial-up telephone modems. On-line information that used to take 20 minutes to access now takes less than 10 seconds over a cable modem.
While speeds approaching this are available from traditional telephone companies in limited areas, the prices are usually so high they prevent home users from having such services. From a telephone company, similar high-speed access would cost nearly 50 times the normal monthly charges for a consumer telephone line.
From the cable-television company, such access would generally cost about five times more than a consumer telephone line.
In addition, high-speed cable-modem access frees telephone lines for voice communication and also provides a constant connection for home users to the Internet, which means no more waiting for dial-up sequences.
Bringing these access speeds to consumers at reasonable cost creates an environment in which new businesses and services are possible.
Applications such as video-conferencing, interactive virtual reality, video-on-demand and multimedia content delivery become possible.
Delivering a standard motion picture to a computer over dial-up connections would take more than 24 hours. Using cable modems, delivery could be accomplished in less than 30 minutes, allowing the movie to be requested and played in real time.
While this method of video-on-demand is not being advocated, the technology has made it possible to do so without incurring unreasonable expenses.
The use of such economical high-speed networks allows major corporations to implement viable work-at-home programs.
Employees working from home now have the ability to access the corporate data network without sacrificing the speed normally lost via a dial-up connection. They are able to access corporate data as if they were sitting in an office.
This was the final barrier to employee efficiency in work-at-home environments.
These high-speed data networks are also in use to help save lives. In the medical community, patient X-rays must be read by qualified X-ray technicians. If an emergency reading is required in the middle of the night, a technician must be called in from home.
In the past, hospitals have used standard telephone lines to transmit X-rays to technician's homes. This takes about 25 minutes, but in most cases this is faster than the physician getting up, dressing and driving to the hospital.
With cable modems, it takes less than 20 seconds to transmit an X-ray to a doctor's home, helping to ensure a quick diagnosis and possibly saving the patient's life.
This high-speed economical access to data networks is about to change the way we do business, access the Internet and create new businesses by opening possibilities that were not available before.
Cable-TV networks represent the next step in on-line information delivery. From word of mouth to printed words, radio, television and data networks, the paradigm is about to shift.
Cable modems will be the replacement for the telephone modem in the quest for better and faster ways to exchange data in the global economy. Toby Ayre is the general manager of international business for Convergence Systems Incorporated, the world's largest supplier of high-speed data-networking solutions and cable modems to the cable television industry.