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1999-2009: How Broadband Changed Everything

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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,

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.

34 Responses to “1999-2009: How Broadband Changed Everything”

  1. Great article. I went to Uni just before the advent of the internet and oh how tough researching was! Now it’s so easy and wondrous just how much information is freely available. Now we need to decide what goals we have in our lives and direct our access to information based on this.

  2. Brett Glass

    It is not “democracy,” but rather anarchy, that has aided the development of companies like Skype and also has allowed Google to obtain a monopoly on online advertising.

    You write: “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.”

    The woes caused by Google which are of concern are not the destruction of “esteemed brands,” but rather the implementation, by government, of policies that harm the public for Google’s benefit. For example, the “network neutrality” regulation being lobbied for by Google and its minions in DC (many of which claim not to be doing it on behalf of Google but actually receive funding or in-kind support from it) is not neutral at all; its purpose is to destroy or harm other companies while helping Google. (This publication, which apparently receives most of its revenue from Google advertising, alas has an irreparable conflict of interest and may in fact be deterred from speaking up about this problem because it would be out of business if it lost the advertising. Is this why both Google and YouTube, and not their competitors, are touted above?) In any event, Google has gotten so big and rich that it can devote millions to such practices (according to, it gave nearly $1 million to the Obama presidential campaign alone). We must be quite concerned about this influence going forward.

    • Subhash Bose

      What do you exactly mean Brett that “other companies will be destroyed” and how? OH i see – you mean the fat slow moving monopolist dinosaurs that wont have all the food to chew on as they have been doing for decades? If America followed your infinite wisdom we will all be still driving Ford Model A and only drinking Cola. Move over please – the world has got business to do.

      • Brett Glass

        Dead wrong. It’s the “monopolist dinosaurs” that are most likely to survive the regulations proposed by Google. It’s new, innovative companies — which Google sees as a threat — that are most likely to be killed. Which is the point, actually. Google doesn’t want to see an upstart rise from a garage to challenge it.

  3. @Om,

    You may touch on these points in parts 2 and 3, but mobile broadband will likely expand upon all of the points you highlighted. Mobile broadband, or wireless broadband as I prefer to call it, is ushering in a “connected lifestyle” where we’ll access info and services via a wide array of devices. Wired broadand is accessed primarily via computers, and therefore has had vast but constrained broadband adoption. Wireless broadband floats the Internet into the clouds. ;-)

    My $.02.

    Happy Holidays!

  4. “which has single-handedly destroyed the long-distance voice business.”

    You sure nationwide cellphone plans didn’t kill that business? Unless you define long-distance voice business only as international calls, I don’t agree with you. I think cellphones killed long-distance.

    • Nick

      I would urge you to look at Skype’s rise and when Cellular phone companies announced flat rate plans. It was a long after Skype became a major irritant for phone companies.

      It is just that it became a deflationary factor in the phone business which has lead to everything you see. I think the companies I presented in the post above represent that “big change” unleashed by broadband “that deflated” current incumbents’ “monopolies.”

      • I wouldn’t know where to look to find that kind of data. So I’m only basing my opinion on my experiences. But I remember cell phones w/ free long distance my first year of college in 2001 being ubiquitous among the students. They had to be because all of your friends’ cell phones had area codes from all over the country.

        Skype came around in what, 2003-2004?

        (I am not talking about flat rate plans that allow unlimited calling. I am talking about cell phone plans that had free long distance. And I believe those plans which were widespread by 2001 if not earlier killed long distance charges from landlines. I understand and agree with the overall point of your article. I just think Skype had little to do with the death of domestic long distance phone calls.

        I would agree Skype/VoIP was a large factor for international calls though. I lived outside the US in 2005-2006 and all the Americans I knew used Skype, VoIP phones or calling cards that I assumed used a VoIP component to connect the call. I don’t know anyone who kept in touch with their families landline to landline.)

      • Nick’s timeline is correct. Same experience here: Cell phones plans with included long distance exploded around 2000.

        Back then, everyone I knew who had a cell phone tended to use it for long distance more, since it was included in more and more plans. E.g., folks would wait till the off-peak period to make those cross-country calls.

        The phone companies began aping this soon after. I distinctly remember MCI’s Neighborhood plan coming out in 2002 or 2003, claiming to be the first to offer both local and long distance calls calling for a single monthly fee, cell-phone style. (TV ads featured some Michael McDonald song…)

        Then, of course the VOIP boom rounded this off, especially with Vonage helping to push this into the mainstream by popularizing the “real phone” feel — versus the computer + headset thing that dominated the early days of VOIP.

    • Nick

      Just because it is the holidays I am going to find that data for you — WP really needs to improve search in its system — and share that with you.

      I appreciate your counter arguments — they are making me re-think and of course become more rigorous in my view on Skype. Thanks

    • Cell phones definately killed domestic long distance for most people. In fact, many people who said they didn’t overly want a cell phone got one just so they could use free nights and weekends.

      For international calls, though, VoIP in general has made long distance a distant memory. For me it’s Vonage World, but for many others Skype was the service that let them drop calling cards and every other form of old fashioned long distance. Hey, my first experience with international VoIP calls was with in 2000; quality over an internet cafe’s ISDN connection was pitiful, but it was a glimpse of the future.