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No bandwidth broad enough

Richard Adler, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. | Nov. 12, 2014
Our ability to communicate across distance continues to improve, but will being online ever be equivalent to being there? Should it be?

Back in the 1970s, at the time of the first "oil shock," when gas prices spiked, researchers at the Institute for the Future conducted a study of what was then being (optimistically) called the "telecommunications/transportation tradeoff." The hope was that virtual meetings could take the place of the real thing, thereby saving money as people substituted electronic media for physical travel. However, the study concluded that there was no tradeoff. In fact, the opposite was true: The more people communicated with others, the more they wanted to travel to meet in person.

Why? While telecom (conferencing, texting, email) is useful for routine communications, there appears to be some kind of deeper connection that happens only when people meet in person. And when something difficult or sensitive needs to be discussed, there seems to be no substitute for doing it face to face. (As one frequent participant in remote meetings told me, he wanted to be able to pound on the desk of the person to whom he was talking to drive home an important point.)

Some two decades after the IFTF study, I had a chance to get direct evidence of the relationship between online and in-person connections. In the early 1990s, I helped launch SeniorNet, a pioneering online community for older adults that provided a variety of forums and chat rooms for members to use. The network was very successful in enabling seniors to meet new people and to participate in everything from sharing gardening tips and discussing political matters to getting support after losing a spouse. But then members who had initially met online spontaneously started organizing a series of "bashes" -- informal get-togethers in different cities where people who had met online could meet in person. Many friendships and even a few late-life marriages came from connections that were originally made online but were reinforced and amplified by face-to-face contact.

From narrowband to broadband
Of course, when SeniorNet started in the early 1990s, online communications were fairly primitive. We were still very much in the world of slow dial-up modems. In 1991, the state-of-the-art modem communicated at 14.4kbps; by 1994, modem speed had doubled to 28.8kbps. At these speeds, online communication was largely limited to text-only messages. Sending even a low-resolution photographic image was a slow, cumbersome process, and sharing video was virtually impossible.

With the arrival of broadband at the turn of the century, the bandwidth available to ordinary households began to increase. As of the year 2000, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, just 3% of U.S. households had a broadband connection, while more than 10 times as many were still on dial-up. Just four years later, in 2004, broadband users had increased to a quarter of all households. Today, more than two-thirds of households have broadband, while just a relative handful still use a dial-up connection.

 

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