February 2, 2004
Recent studies claim household broadband penetration rates from 34-37%, with affluent households of $75K yearly income or more approaching 50%. This is all very good news for shops who push online interactive and clients who wish to provide a richer experience for their audience.
But these studies define "broadband" by the connection type, dial-up vs. Cable or DSL services, rather than by actual connection rates; at first glance a reasonable assumption but one which may prove misleading depending on your content requirements.
If you define broadband as "faster than dial-up" then of course that's correct—but how much faster does your connection rate need to be in order to optimally view your content? The answer depends on what kind of content you want to provide to your users.
My office at Threespot Media is served by a T1 connection, which theoretically supplies 150KBps of available bandwidth. There, a 100KB page downloads in under a second, which meets the human factors requirement of subsecond response times needed in order for a user's navigation to feel unencumbered. By contrast, a 56K modem user with a generous 5KBps connection rate delivers the same page in 20 seconds. As I write this at home, my cable modem from Cox Internet currently delivers @20KBps; that same page would then download in 5 seconds.
An often referenced eMarket study reported that one third of Net users will only wait 15 seconds for a Web page to download before clicking to another link. Clearly my cable modem connection rate ensures, if not unencumbered navigation, a reasonable experience with such richly designed pages.
That covers graphics-intense pages and perhaps also rich media like Flash and Shockwave. But what if I want to watch high quality streaming video?
Both Real and QuickTime players begin their broadband connection rate categories at 256kbps (32KBps) for Cable/DSL users; at my current 20KBps connection rate, I cannot view uninterrupted streaming video content designed for my broadband platform!
Lest you think mine is an isolated experience, Threespot recently conducted a bandwidth study where we empirically measured a client's site user connection rates and found that while the "faster than dial-up" numbers slightly bettered the two aforementioned studies, we also found that only 16% of those "broadband" users could view streaming video in the 200kbps (25KBps) range.
So, what do we make of this? Clearly the growing cable/DSL user base is good news—faster is always better in the content delivery context, even if more than half of your audience still connects at dial-up rates and thus needs attending to, but the argument for "broadband" streaming video may be weakened by the reality of your audience's actual connection rates. A business built upon an assumption that home cable/DLS users = a built-in audience for high-quality streaming video is optimistic at best but probably not sustainable by the facts.