Are the bandwidth-rich different from you and me?

Twenty years ago I used to bemuse audiences on the rubber chicken circuit by talking about a Brave New World where computing would be free and bandwidth unlimited. (The industry was not ready for a Technology Communist, even one with a Harvard Business degree.)

This was at a time when computing cost about US$1 million per mainframe MIP and most people thought you would fall off the earth if your modem ever went faster than 2,400 bits per second.

I would talk about home bus standards where your coffee maker would talk to your bathroom scale and your car would continuously test itself and schedule an appointment with the nearest garage if it was ailing.

Well, if you wait long enough, everything happens (except the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series). This year there will be 1.25 million U.S. homes (out of 102 million) that will have either cable modems or digital subscriber line. Seven million U.S. homes will have high bandwidth by 2002 and probably 10 million by 2004 — or 10 per cent of the U.S. homes. We have become bandwidth junkies, addicted to higher speeds. What we have at the office, we will demand at home.

Two weeks ago, I was out seeing Brother Bill Gates at Microsoft and asked what kind of high-speed connection he has at home. The answer: a T-3, with a couple of T-ls for back-up. Well, does that mean that someday everyone is going to have that kind of bandwidth to his or her homes? If Brother Bill is spending three ten-thousandths of his net worth on home networking, what does that work out to for you?

And then what happens inside the home? Right now there are four home-networking standards groups: the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance, which is working on phone-line networking standards; the HomeRF Working Group, which is focusing on wireless standards; the Home Audio/Video Interoperability group, which promotes middleware that allows all the audio/visual equipment within the home to communicate; and the HomeAPI Working Group, which is working on programming interfaces that enable software to discover and control home devices.

So, who wins? My bet is on the wireless network group. I think we are about to see a need for shrink-wrapped solutions that find each other, then build a network by themselves.

In other words, the home of tomorrow will be a network of networks. Every device in the home that costs more than US$25 will eventually be hooked to the Internet and, yes, your coffee machine will talk to your computer and your computer will check your flight schedule and download a picture of your driving route in that distant city. But not just a picture — a moving video of where and how to turn, all downloaded to your PalmPilot MCV.

We have always viewed the home in passive terms — as a sink of bits rather than a source. We send a low-bandwidth message upstream and receive tons of bits downstream. But that stops when the home becomes a source of significant bandwidth, too.

Think what went on in corporate networks. High speed wasn’t caused by single demands for video but rather a plethora of devices on LANs. Exactly the same thing is going to happen inside the home. Your home is a LAN and so is your car. Some of those devices will require low speed, some higher.

Now, what will we pay for this? (“I thought you said it was free, Howard.”)

Funny thing about money. We will scream like fools if our newspaper goes from 35 cents to 50 cents per day. We will threaten to call the FCC if pay phones go from 10 cents to 25 cents. But we will defend to the death the right to pay US$40 more per month not to have to wait five extra seconds for Internet access.

What will we be willing to pay for bandwidth inside the home? My guess is US$120 per year — or US$10 per month for all devices. Can the industry deliver up this number? Bet on it.

Howard Anderson is founder and president of The Yankee Group, a consultancy in Boston. He is a contributor to Network World (US).