1999-2009: How Broadband Changed Everything

2009 has started to pack up its belongings and get ready for its journey into the history books. As such it’s time to slow down and spend more time with our respective families, and to reflect on things. I, like so many others, have been reflecting not only on the year that’s drawing to a close, but the decade.

From 1999 to 2009, the world changed dramatically. We destroyed an unprecedented amount, and yet thanks to technology, built an unprecedented amount, too. Indeed, like a man obsessed, I cannot help but look at our modern lives through the lens of broadband. Thanks to that technology, the world today is more closely knit than ever. From 9/11 to the Asian tsunami to the election of Barack Obama to the terror attacks in Mumbai to the uprising in Iran, broadband enabled us to experience such global events together.

All of which has made me think about the epilogue of my book, “Broadbandits: Inside the $750 Billion Telecom Heist.” Despite the tale I recounted, I was very optimistic about the technology. After all, it was the players who had let the game down — as they almost always do. I still believed in the promise of seamless connectivity, that broadband would prove to be a platform that would usher in a new era of innovation. As I wrote back then:

Despite the current crisis in the broadband business, I am a lot less despondent today than I was starting work on this project…Like its predecessors, the radio, railroad, airline and automobile bubbles, the broadband bubble will be a distant memory…Sure, the industry will suffer for a couple of more years, but by then entrepreneurs — the very essence of the American capitalist system will figure out a way to use that bandwidth. Steve Jobs of Apple Computer wants us all to exchange digital photos and videos; that will consume some bandwidth. Some say that a new era of grid computing will dawn…It’s a start!

Those were brave and somewhat foolish words, given that at the time the industry was in disarray due to corporate scandal, and there were miles and miles of pipes with no data to fill them. I was writing about a long list of companies in 1999 that don’t exist anymore, among them @Home Networks, the first cable broadband provider; Rhythms NetConnections; Northpoint Communications and the Concentric Network. My own first broadband connection came to me earlier that year via Bell Atlantic, a Baby Bell that would eventually morph into Verizon. I paid $70 for a 384 kbps DSL connection.

The House That Napster Built

It’s easy to forget that it was the magical beauty of Napster, the then-illegal music-sharing service, that spurred many of us to sign up for DSL and cable broadband connections. Napster’s popularity made it clear for the first time that broadband was a platform, no different than, say, Windows or the PlayStation. That’s because it allowed for new applications to be developed and run on top of it, applications that consumed bandwidth — and in turn, driving demand for even more of it.

The demand for broadband, of course, has since soared. In the U.S., for example, we started the decade with a couple million connections but are going to end it with more than 80 million. While the growth of new connections has started to slow, by 2014 the total number of connections will top 96.4 million in the U.S. alone. Globally, according to some estimates, there will be close to 700 million broadband users by 2013.

But since for many people, such numbers are too abstract to be meaningful, let’s just look back at the decade that was in terms of companies and the products and services they brought us that have become fundamental to our everyday lives.

That Thing You Google

We’ll start with Google. Little more than a pesky little upstart in 2000, it has been the single biggest beneficiary of the broadband boom. Not only did it turn the Internet into a strategic advantage, but it managed to bottled that lightening on its first try. Because broadband connections allow us to search for anything, anytime, and actually find what we’re looking for, thanks to Larry and Sergey, we soon started to forget about directory services such as the one offered by Yahoo.

The more broadband spread, the more people used Google and as such, changed their Internet usage behavior from that of hoarding bookmarks or consulting directories to searching, starting with the phrase: I’m Feeling Lucky! Of course, Google is now a $191 billion company, its corporate vow to “Do no evil” now somewhat hollow-sounding.

At the same time, I find it absurd that so many companies blame Google for their woes. It’s not Google that has so little regard for esteemed brands, but the distribution platform — aka the broadband network. This truly democratic quality is why Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis were able to start peer-to-peer Internet telephony service Skype, which has single-handedly destroyed the long-distance voice business.

I Want My NewTeeVee

And let’s not forget YouTube, which turned every minute into prime time and the entire planet into an audience. Or that ultimate lovechild of broadband and television, Hulu. We’ve largely replaced our real-world relationships with Facebook pokes and Twitter updates, and most of us now own either an iPod or an iPhone (or both!). All have made for a broadband-enabled life. In the meantime, a new era of grid computing, known as cloud computing, has begun, courtesy of Jeff Bezos’s amazing house on the hill, Amazon.com.

Of course, the very flat and democratic Internet has also destroyed aging business models practiced by those that failed to learn one simple truth: packets eventually end up at their destination.

P.S.: I will post part two and three of this series of essays about broadband over the holiday break, so be sure to come and read them.