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PC World

April 20, 2000
Web posted at: 9:06 a.m. EDT (1306 GMT)

(IDG) -- Only a year ago, we had a hard time finding online content designed especially for the lucky few of us with cable-modem and DSL connections. Even the broadband Internet service providers didn't have much to boast about; only Excite@Home's limited showcase approached being a broadband portal.

But as the number of broadband subscribers approaches 2.5 million, streaming-media sites are finally offering a reasonable selection of 128- to 300-kilobits-per-second video and animation clips.

It's hardly an explosion, but it's definitely a trend: Dozens of sites are attracting broadband users with movie trailers, short films, Flash animations, 3D games, high-quality Internet radio, and of course MP3 files. (see "Best of the broadband sites" link below for a first-hand tour.)

Who's in?

Most of the action -- and some of the best broadband media -- has come from smaller players, typically dial-up streaming sites that increasingly put higher bandwidth clips alongside slower options.

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  * Computerworld Minute and offer 300-kbps trailers, and and other radio networks provide numerous DSL and cable options for their stations. The Web has also become a venue for short independent films through sites such as AtomFilms and IFilms.

Now the big fish are taking notice. Time Warner is a broadband content leader with Entertaindom, and this month AOL released its AOL Plus service to subscribers. Back in March, Sony announced it would actively enter the broadband content field with a new umbrella company called Sony Broadband Entertainment.

NBC, the most active of the TV networks in broadband, debuted its high-bandwidth NBCi site in February. In March, AT&T announced it was strengthening its control over Excite@Home, which had greatly expanded its existing broadband content earlier that month with the launch of @Home 2000.

In this new broadband portal, "all of the rich media we have is in much larger frame sizes and higher quality resolutions," says Richard Gingrich, senior vice president and general manager at Excite Studios. "We've added much more news video from multiple sources. We have a feature called Click Video that aggregates short videos from AtomFilms, Mondo Media, and the Daily Show."

From downloading to streaming

Revved-up video clips may be the way broadband is going, but that wasn't always true. The early wave of broadband adopters didn't value such clips all that highly. Instead, most early broadbanders fell into two (sometimes overlapping) categories: business users and MP3 freaks.

For business users, the benefits of an always-on connection, fast downloads, and simultaneous phone have outweighed the entertainment value of broadband. And the younger users driving the MP3 scene have not been overly concerned with high-quality video. They use their connections for fast downloads, and unlike streaming files, straight downloads of MPEG and MP3 files don't need to be tweaked based on access speeds.

Now a new, more casual wave of users is arriving on the broadband scene. This broader audience wants to browse Web sites; shop and compare prices; and sample news clips, movie trailers, and music. And this is just what some sites have to offer.

Early days

But the broadband "revolution" goes only so far. While higher-bandwidth clips are on the rise, it's still fairly rare to see truly rich graphic displays, colorful backgrounds, 3D-looking objects, and lots of photos, icons, and graphics.

Despite the hype about how broadband will boost e-commerce sales, few online stores offer more than a single, low-resolution photo of a product, let alone videos, slide shows, or animations. And few Web sites (with the exception of porn sites) have taken advantage of broadband users' capacity for viewing larger, higher-resolution photographs.

Broadband content poses a problem for content sites because it slows down dialup operations, points out Emily Meehan, an analyst at the Yankee Group.

Just as a 24X CD-ROM drive won't give you 20 times better video if the video was encoded for a 4X CD-ROM, a 560-kbps broadband connection won't give you 20 times better quality on a clip designed for 28.8-kbps modem users. Broadband can help reduce some of the buffering problems of media files encoded for slower connections, but it does little to help the small screen sizes, washed-out audio, pixelated images, and poor lighting.

For tips on getting the best viewing experience, see the "Buckle Up for Your Broadband Tour" link at right. And whatever your DSL or cable provider might have told you, don't expect clips to work at more than 300 kbps (see "Broadband hits the speed limit," link below).

You may wait quite some time before you'll have media experiences that truly exploit your broadband connection. But in the meantime, there's plenty to see out there at 300 kbps. It may not be TV, but most of it is watchable.

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Best of the broadband sites
(PC World Online)
Broadband hits the speed limit
(PC World Online)
Buckle up for your broadband tour
(PC World Online)
Broadband or bust
(PC World Online)
How cable modems work
(PC World Online)
How DSL works
(PC World Online)
Broadband, narrow choices
(PC World Online)
Should you go wireless for broadband?
(PC World Online)


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