If Canadian businesses and consumers thought broadband was a passing fancy, they are now starting to realize that high speed access is the real deal.

We’ve heard this all before, the rants about technologies that oftentimes fail to materialize. However, a study from Cap Gemini Ernst & Young of 128 presidents, partners and CEOs from prominent firms across North America all have acknowledged that broadband will be critical for how businesses function and survive into this millennium.

“With e-commerce and the World Wide Web, it’s not just your neighbourhood, it’s the world,” said Bill St. Arnaud, the senior director of advanced networks for CANARIE, a not-for-profit organization devoted to the research and implementation of advanced networks and applications in Ottawa.

“And that’s what businesses are discovering when they announce a product. The world is their market immediately, and so having broadband is becoming critical to their business,” he continued.

“Companies who are quicker to adopt (broadband) will likely be the winners, early adoption of the technology will determine the winners and losers.”

St. Arnaud compared high speed to the PC computer of the early 1980s, suggesting the real impact of broadband is still in the primitive stages in terms of business use and networking.

“Broadband is definitely the wave of the future, and for companies to stay competitive, they know that high speed is the future,” said Doug McCuaig, vice-president of e-business for Cap Gemini Ernst & Young in Toronto.

According to the study, compiled in 1999, the data showed that by 2004, 80 per cent of large companies, compared to 65 per cent then, will have fibre connections to their buildings. That trend also applies to mid-size companies, that will see their fibre-optic access rise from 35 per cent to 54 per cent by 2004.

Neil Black, the technical director for Extend Media, an iTV production company that creates interactive programming and delivery of interactive content in Toronto, agreed that broadband is crucial in business today.

“(It’s) very important. A lot of the work we’re doing now is generated toward high speed technology clients, media work and Web Sites,” Black said.

“We just finished work on a six virtual channel for Sympatico Lycos; it’s a major part of our effort.”

So who benefits from this high-speed revolution?

“Everyone benefits, businesses, suppliers of high speed and the economy in general, and for smaller countries like Canada that rely on exports, we can benefit from broadband being rapidly deployed to our businesses,” St. Arnaud said.

Black agreed. “Both the seller and consumer benefit. High speed is only one part of the equation, and the other being the always-on nature of the service, and the inter-connectivity between the devices in the home,” he said.

Black explained that one area that broadband has yet to tap is the home networking component, “getting your TV to speak to your computer, to speak to your fridge.”

But as crucial as high speed has become over the past year, McCuaig is concerned that “Canada is lagging behind the U.S. in terms of broadband connectivity.”

However, St. Arnaud believes “Canada has a more competitive broadband marketplace, compared to the U.S., but we can’t rest on our laurels. We’ve done well to date but we need more competition, more services and reduced costs.”

Black added that there will likely end up being an amalgamation in terms of competition. “Increased competition would be better but unlikely (as) the cost is high enough that it will lead to a consolidation in the market,” he said.

The cost, however, of not going with high speed access will probably mean being left behind. The past 12 months have seen the near extinction of dial-up networks in favour of broadband – a trend that will continue, Black noted.