In many ways, Brambleton looks like any of the new housing developments that have popped up near Dulles Airport in the past several years. Except coursing under its crisp green lawns and treeless streets is a fiber-optic network that supplies some 600 homes with Internet access at speeds once reserved for the largest corporations.
For Ashley D. Campolattaro, 33, a stay-at-home mom, the super-fast connection has become more important than her television or telephone. She uses it to schedule play dates for her children and dinners with neighbors and to check references for babysitters. The Internet has become a lifeline for Campolattaro, particularly on days when caring for her two young sons leaves her feeling isolated from the grown-up world.
There is a laptop in her kitchen and another computer in the den. There isn't much time to sit for extended periods, but she can always steal a few seconds to click at the keyboard.
"I can check my e-mail 100 times a day," Campolattaro said.
Just eight years ago, broadband was the domain of the workplace. Now, 30 percent of U.S. homes have high-speed access to the Internet and it's common to find wireless connections everywhere from highway truck stops to luxury hotels.
Brambleton's developer has added wireless networks at the community pool and other access points near outdoor benches. "I don't know how they are going to see their computer screens in the sun," said Brambleton spokeswoman Amanda Jensen, but she added that the company is only responding to demand. There are plans to ramp up the network's speed, even though as recently as three years ago it was viewed as more than enough for residential use.
The Internet service is included in Campolattaro's homeowner association fees of approximately $230 a month. For that price, she also receives cable television service and covers her share of community lawn care and road maintenance.
Verizon Communications Inc. built Brambleton's network as a market test for new technologies. The project offers a glimpse of what the telecommunications giant hopes to do around the country. Verizon, the nation's largest telephone company, announced last week that it will spend close to $3 billion to establish fiber-optic networks in six states that could give 3 million homes the same level of Internet service that Campolattaro enjoys. Much of the new construction is focused on Washington's suburbs, including Falls Church and Leesburg in Northern Virginia and parts of Montgomery County in Maryland.
The announcement comes as the cable television industry has begun to beef up its lines, offering in some cases its own competing package of telephone, television and Internet service.
Verizon officials say their network may fundamentally change the way people think not only about the Internet but also about television and telephone service. Instead of changing channels and getting stuck with whatever is on, viewers in the future may search for shows in the same way they find Web sites. Rather than buying programming packages, television in the future may be available on an a la carte basis, said Robert Ingalls, president of Verizon Retail Markets. Brambleton's cable TV service is provided by a third party that transmits channels such as ESPN, MTV and C-SPAN over Verizon's network. Verizon has not revealed details about its future television offerings.
Some of Brambleton's residents have already found their own television programming online. Zakir Kahn, 30, has used the Internet to download more than two dozen religious movies. "These movies are not even out in theaters," Kahn said. He purchases some films from authorized sites and others from Web sites that offer free downloads. It takes him about 30 to 40 minutes to download a two-hour movie. The long wait is one reason Kahn is looking forward to Brambleton's plans to boost the network's speed: "I think it's okay, but if we can get faster, why not?"
He also subscribes to an Internet-based telephone service that allows him to make discounted calls with his high-speed connection.
Kahn, who owns a software company, said he was attracted to Brambleton because it is situated near the America Online Inc. and MCI Inc. campuses in Ashburn. But as a high-tech professional, a key factor in his decision was the robust Internet offering.
"They were the two things that really attracted me," Kahn said.
Surveys show that the Internet's most active users have high-speed connections. Popular news and entertainment sites, once the domain of dial-up users, are now geared to people like Campolattaro who have turbo-charged connections that can download video and pixel-heavy graphics in a blink.
Consumer advocates say there is much more at stake than faster Internet access and the ability to read e-mail at the community pool. They worry that the growth of broadband and the focus by telecommunications companies on upscale neighborhoods like Brambleton will create divisions between digital haves and have-nots.
Gene Kimmelman, director of the Washington office of Consumers Union, said most all-inclusive packages of television, telephone and Internet cost more than $100 a month, a total that is beyond the means of many. "There is a new digital divide. In a world where it is important to have a speedy connection to the Internet, 40 percent of the nation doesn't have access and is falling behind," Kimmelman said.
A Verizon spokesman said yesterday that current plans for its advanced networks are focused on suburban neighborhoods but that the company is working on new technologies that will lead to investment in urban and rural neighborhoods. "We believe America's broadband future should include everyone: rural and urban, rich and poor, established communities and new. Multiple technologies and multiple competing service providers will be involved in making it happen," Verizon spokesman Lawrence D. Plumb said.
But as these big new networks are rolled out, it's not clear how much service is needed. Lauren E. Hoberg, a senior at George Washington University, has a connection in her dorm room that allows her to download a two-hour movie in less than 10 minutes. But she has never downloaded a film or even a TV show. Instead she uses the Internet to research homework and check out a few favorite sites.
"I pretty much surf the Web," said Hoberg, 21.