How goes the broadband revolution? It depends on how you read the numbers.
By the research firm ARS Inc.'s figures, there are about 15 million broadband subscribers in the United States today, with 9.4 million using cable modems, which ride on the same wiring as cable TV, and 5.4 million on digital subscriber lines, which piggyback on telephone circuits. Not bad -- but of the 70 percent of American households that could get either cable-modem or DSL service, only 13 percent or so have signed up.
Broadband isn't just for early adopters anymore, but it's not for everyone either.
Erika Jolly, vice president of broadband marketing at EarthLink Inc., the nation's third-biggest Internet provider, classifies those who are signing up for broadband now as the "early majority" -- people who are interested in technology but who have a considerably lower pain threshold for price and installation issues than the first wave of subscribers.
"Early adopters are optimistic and have a lot of patience," said Jolly. "Early-majority folks are a little more pessimistic; they are very concerned about 'What is the value to me as a consumer?' "
Of EarthLink's nearly 5 million users, about 780,000 use broadband connections.
Price has been one brake on any widespread adoption of high-speed Internet access -- but never fear, that's a problem that some of the best marketing departments on the globe are working on.
The average monthly cost of cable-modem access crept up from $33.22 in the second quarter of 2000 to $45.31 two years later. DSL prices have been a little more stable, rising from $50.90 to $51.36 over the same period, according to ARS.
But just about every broadband provider (85 percent, according to ARS) has ongoing promotions to make the first three, six or 12 months cheaper for new customers.
So in some ways, prices are going both up and down at the same time. "The effective annualized monthly prices for broadband actually declined when you work in all the promotions, though the absolute prices are going up," said Mark Kersey, an analyst at the firm.
Providers are also jiggling their price structures to see if slower but cheaper broadband will draw new users in.
Covad Communications Corp., a Santa Clara, Calif., telecommunications firm that supplies the DSL circuits used by EarthLink and other Internet providers -- and sells service under its own name -- is one of the first companies to offer "tiered" service. That is, customers can choose to pay more for faster access or less for slower access.
Covad figured that it could advertise a cheaper plan as costing the same as a dial-up Internet subscription plus an extra phone line. That plan, at $39.95 per month, still offers download speeds about seven times as fast as you could get with a dial-up subscription, but half those of other forms of broadband.
The company now offers a $49.95 plan and, for high-end users, a $69.95 option; EarthLink plans to roll out a similar sort of price structure this year.
But don't pick up that phone yet -- there's more. If broadband providers can't close the deal with consumers on the strength of an attractive price alone, an increasingly popular strategy is to fold Internet access into a package with other communications services. Starpower Communications Corp., for example, gives customers a discount of a few dollars a month if they order an all-in-one bundle of the company's cable TV, broadband and phone services.
Verizon now offers a package it calls Verizon Veriations, in which customers sign up for local, long-distance and wireless phone service as well as DSL Internet. Verizon DSL will run you $49.95 per month by itself, but get the service as part of Verizon's bundle and it's $34.95.
Broadband companies like this type of deal because a consumer who has signed up for multiple services makes them more money -- and is more likely to stick around. For those consumers, meanwhile, it means one or two fewer bills a month.
Before they place all or most of their telecom existence in the hands of one company, however, customers also need to be able to count on that firm sticking around. Many broadband Internet providers have not: Those optimistic and patient early adopters have had to put up with a lot of volatility in the business over the past few years. Several high-profile bankruptcies -- Excite At Home Corp. on the cable side and NorthPoint Communications Inc. and Rhythms Net Connections Inc. in the DSL market -- have left customers stranded, sometimes without any broadband option at all.
Charles E. Hoffman, president and chief executive at Covad, observed: "We've gotten quite good at migrating customers from ISPs that failed. We've done quite a lot of that over the last few years."
On the shrinking list of broadband providers, the surviving players are mostly phone and cable companies. Consumers lost another major alternative recently when DirecTV announced in December that it was pulling the plug on its DSL service.
Fewer companies means fewer options for consumers. "There's not as much innovation out there as there should be, because all these small guys have disappeared," said Pat Hurley, an analyst at consulting firm TeleChoice Inc. (and a DirecTV DSL refugee himself). "You're stuck with the phone company, the cable company and a few other options."
Is it safe to log on with a small company that must compete with the cable and phone giants these days? That depends on what you're comfortable with and what you want. Some people like the more personal service that smaller firms can deliver; others just want to get to Amazon.com and don't care what firm provides their Internet access.
"It's hard to have 100 percent assurance about any small provider," said Joe Laszlo, senior analyst at Jupiter Research. "But I think the shakeout is just about over. There aren't that many more companies that can leave the business."
Some small ISPs report that business is just fine. "Profitwise, last year was our best year so far," said Dave Troy, founder and president of ToadNet Inc. "Go figure." Troy's is still growing -- the Severna Park, Md., firm bought Radicus Internet, a Baltimore ISP, this week.
In one corner of the market, the spirit of the tiny mom-and-pop ISP isn't just hanging on, it's flourishing. That's the new category of wireless community networks.
While most people within subscription range of The Post could subscribe to DSL or cable-modem access if they wanted to, there are still spots where Web surfing is stuck at low tide. Not all cable systems have been upgraded to allow high-speed access, and DSL is limited to houses within 10 to 15,000 "wire feet" of the nearest telephone central office -- that's not as the crow flies, but as the cable crawls.
The traditional remedy for DSL and cable deprivation has been satellite broadband, which works pretty much anywhere but requires pricey hardware and costs $10 to $20 more than cable or DSL while offering slower downloads.
Instead, however, some enterprising geeks are leasing business-grade T1 lines at $500 and month and up, then sharing that fast connection with their neighbors over WiFi wireless networks. The neighbors, in turn, pay their share of that monthly bill. Bruce Potter, founder of Capital Area Wireless Network (www.cawnet.org), has put together an organization focused on helping such tiny services get up and rolling.
"There's no money in this for me," said Potter, who works as a software security consultant. "I'm just trying to help build a community."
There's the optimism of a true early adopter for you.