Last week I wrote about signs that ADSL is finally entering the mainstream. Whether or not it is premature to proclaim the start of a new era, it is worth considering some of the implications of the broadband lifestyle for businesses on the Net.
For a long time, the assumption has been that broadband - whether supplied by ADSL, cable or even satellite - will be used for high-quality multimedia. There are already many streams based on broadcast material freely available for those with a fast connection. A good place to explore these is Comfm ( www.comfm.com/ ). This claims to offer more than 4,000 Net radio stations ( www.comfm.com/live/radio ), broken down by geographic area and type, 500 online TV programmes ( www.comfm.com/live/tv ), as well as webcams and MP3 sites.
But, in a sense, this kind of application misses the point. Such streaming, though useful, turns the Internet into little more than a global TV network, and jettisons much of the real, interactive power of the technology.
In fact, it may well be that the key use of broadband is the diametric opposite to this bandwidth-intensive, but non-interactive application. As many business users can attest, being long-accustomed to having broadband-type access from their desktops, the real advantage over narrowband is not in terms of speed, but availability. That is, the broadband lifestyle is more a consequence of the always-on nature of cable or ADSL, rather than of its nominal peak download speeds.
Businesses take this for granted, but end-users have typically needed to log on in order to access the Internet. There has thus been a serious obstacle in the way of obtaining information, goods or services.
Broadband means that end-users will turn more readily to their PCs (and gradually other devices) when seeking information. More importantly for e-commerce, they will start to adopt online shopping as a matter of course, rather than as an exceptional event. In other words, the roll-out of broadband may well have a knock-on effect on online sales, and help make e-commerce more profitable for companies that hitherto have seen rather meagre returns.
This will affect all current online sales, but the broadband lifestyle will also help the rise of a technology that is still currently rather experimental, namely Web services. One of the key ideas behind Web services - many of which will be paid-for, or so the theory goes - is that third parties and users will be able to plug together components drawn from different Internet locations to create pages offering customised information.
Although this does not in itself require an always-on connection, by their very nature such Web services are likely to provide the kind of information that is constantly updated - stock reports, the weather, traffic problems etc. If broadband does indeed encourage people to turn to the Net routinely, then they are more likely to be receptive to the underlying premise of Web services - and even to paying for them.
Of course, nothing is an unalloyed benefit, and broadband connections are no exception. As I have pointed out in this column before, "always-on" means "always open to attack". Although it is hard to gauge the scale of this problem, the fact that there have been no serious - or at least well-publicised - denial of service attacks recently suggests that most broadband users are taking sensible precautions in terms of firewalls - for example, by using the free version of the popular ZoneAlarm ( www.zonelabs.com/zap26_za_grid.html ).
Unfortunately, the current rapid uptake of ADSL connections means that there will soon be a huge batch of always-on newbies. As the history of the Internet has shown, this is likely to mean more people adopting the technology without much thought for the wider consequences. More people will leave their machines permanently online without firewalls, more systems will be compromised - and more denial of service attacks on businesses are likely to occur.