As prices dropped over the past year, broadband use at home has surpassed that of dial-up in the United States, reaching 53 percent of residential Web users in October, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
For now, what people do online hasn't changed as much as its frequency and duration, although some people are beginning to make telephone calls on the Internet or use cheap webcams for video chatting.
When Mark Suhre built his five-bedroom, three-story home in Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay, he made sure each room had its own high-speed network jack. Wireless access points extended the Internet's reach to the swimming pool.
Most evenings, the whole family is online at once: Suhre wrapping up work as a computer network engineer; his wife, Terri, preparing school lessons or ordering from an e-tailer; his teenage sons Gary, Josh and Brandon playing online video games, instant messaging with friends, maybe even researching homework. The Suhres' lives, online and off, have been transformed by their broadband connection.
Surveys from the Pew Internet and American Life Project find that 69 percent of broadband users go online on a typical day, compared with 51 percent for dial-up. Broadband users who went online averaged 107 minutes surfing the Web, checking e-mail and otherwise engaged, 21 minutes longer than dial-up users.
Taking advantage of their always-on connection, they practice "infosnacking."
"People are more able and willing to just walk up to the Internet to get a quick snippet of what they need, send a quick e-mail, read a quick news article, check a sports score," said Jim Bankoff, executive vice president for programming at America Online Inc.
Not having to wait several minutes to log on to a dial-up account, broadband user Jeannie Tatum will quickly check prices before heading out to a store. The Spring, Texas, Web designer will visit Blockbuster's site to see if a new release is out yet, noting that with dial-up, "it would take less time to pick up the phone and call."
Telephone books? Gathering dust on the shelf.
Atlases? What are they?
Communal behavior also is tempered by the broadband effect.
Family members arguing a point over dinner are more apt, if they have broadband, to "look it up online rather than continue to yell at each other," said Lee Rainie, Pew's director.
Or, in the absence of verbal interaction, families can have heated discussions in Internet chat rooms — individual members each sitting in separate rooms in front of computer screens.
That happens when broadband users take their Internet habit a step further by setting up home networks. Suhre wired his home so his network can one day accommodate Internet-enabled refrigerators and TVs.
TiVo Inc. had such networks in mind in designing features for its popular digital video recorder. Already, users can schedule recordings online — from the office, say. But unless they have broadband, the updates can take up to a day to make.
TiVo is soon expected to launch a service that lets users move recorded programs to laptops. In the future, TiVo spokeswoman Kathryn Kelly said, users will be able to send programs to other recorders they own, in a vacation home, for instance.
Microsoft Corp. recommends broadband for its PCs running Windows XP Media Center Edition, which lets users view photos and movies on regular TVs or listen on a stereo system to music stored on a hard drive.
The version out in 2003 makes it easy to buy programming for download. The latest version, released in October, has an optional "extender" for sending programs to other rooms through the home network.
Suhre said his kids have grown to take broadband for granted and were miserable when they had only dial-up for two weeks while moving. Suhre got first dibs, then his wife and finally the children.
"You could see they would be hovering around, almost like dinner time when they are hungry, trying to figure out when she would get off," Suhre said.
The online convenience changes offline behavior as well.
Rainie goes to the office late and leaves early, avoiding rush-hour traffic, because he knows he can make up the hours at home.
Content creators, meanwhile, find the broadband audience now big enough to make it worthwhile to produce resource-hungry features. Amazon.com commissioned five short films to view for free at its site this holiday season.
Americans are hardly pioneers, however, in embracing broadband.
U.S. a broadband laggard
The United States trailed 12 of the 15 top economies, including Canada, in broadband penetration, according to a September report from U.N. International Telecommunication Union analyzing 2003 data.
South Korea topped the list at more than double the U.S. rate.
Broadband helped spur a social and political renaissance in South Korea, where thousands of citizens contribute to an alternative news site called OhmyNews, shaking the traditional media and political establishments.
In sixth-ranked Denmark, Internet-based telephones have become popular as they allow customers to avoid per-minute local phone charges, said John Strand, a telecommunications consultant in Copenhagen.
By comparison, Americans are only starting to figure out what they can do with broadband, said Maribel Lopez, a Forrester Research analyst. And until they get it, households simply can't be sold on such advanced services as Internet calling and telemedicine.
Broadband does have its share of headaches, of course.
Computers now stay connected 24 hours a day, extending the window of exploitability by hackers.
And with only one or two companies in many markets controlling the main pipelines into the home, consumer advocates fear they might give preferential treatment to content from business partners, or make competitors' content difficult to find or slow to load.
In the meantime, Internet usability expert Jakob Nielsen has a word of caution for the broadband crowd:
Respect the dial-up population. It remains large. Think twice before sending friends large photo files as attachments. Those photos could sour their Internet experience.
On the other hand, come to think of it, those photos could encourage them to finally spring for broadband.
Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.