By Charles Wardell. Americans may soon consider broadband access a birthright. "There are more and more subscribers using more and more applications that demand more and more bandwidth," notes Dave Waks with Systems Dynamics, a broadband consultant in Morris Plains, N.J. Chances are, many of these people will become impatient with any new home that doesn't include a broadband connection. Of course, getting broadband to the homes in a development is usually up to the developer. But a builder who understands the options can better explain them to customers.

Assuming that the community has an aggregation point with an incoming fiber optic feed, the question is how to get from there to each home. Whether you call it the Last Mile, the First Mile, or the Missing Mile, the link will most likely consist of cable and/or fiber.

Broadband is sometimes defined as anything faster than a dial-up connection, including DSL, cable satellite, and fiber optics. We define it as a connection that can handle data, voice, and video. DSL doesn't have the speed to handle video, so while it's a great alternative to dial-up, we don't consider it true broadband.

Coaxial Cable

Pros: Long established. Relatively inexpensive.

Cons: Shared medium.

Photo: Joan Hall

Some argue that fiber to the home (FTTH) is the only way to truly future proof, while others insist that a hybrid fiber coax system--where the fiber runs to a pedestal in the neighborhood, then the remaining yards are spanned with cable--provides more than enough bandwidth for any service a homeowner will likely order in the near future. Besides, the optical-to-electrical converters that make the transition from fiber to copper are expensive, so spreading the cost over several homes makes more business sense.

An oft-cited problem with cable is that because several households may share the bandwidth on a given line, connections will slow down as more users connect. That's why most cable providers won't guarantee download speeds.

But Brian Hills, a consultant with The Broadband Group in Sacramento, Calif., points out that large cable providers routinely add capacity when needed. It's similar to what cell providers do when demand exceeds capacity. "If the number of consumers increases, the provider just adds cells," says Hills.

And cable may be getting a boost. At least two companies--Narad Networks in Westford, Mass., and Rainmaker Technologies in Cupertino, Calif.--are developing new technologies that could multiply cable's bandwidth.

Narad marketing director Mark Heslop says that his company's technology could boost cable's seven to 10 megabyte per second (Mbps) bandwidth to 100 Mbps both ways: not as fast as fiber but fast enough to handle voice and video, and at a much lower cost.

Fiber Optics

Pros: Super high bandwidth. High quality.

Cons: High price. Limited availability.

Fiber has virtually unlimited bandwidth and is less prone to electrical interference than copper. It allows the transmission of data using Ethernet, a packet-switched protocol with typical speeds of 10 Mbps. That opens possibilities for the developer. At Pine Hills, a development in Plymouth, Mass., fiber will run to all of the community's 2,900 homes. Pine Hills president John Judge says the technology will let him set up a community-wide Ethernet and to act as the community's Internet service provider.

For now, high costs make FTTH best suited to high-end projects with well over 1,000 homes or with high home prices. (Pine Hills' homes cost from $300,000 to more than $1 million.)

But Judge thinks that as bandwidth-intensive applications like high-definition television become more common, buyers will begin demanding fiber, bringing costs down to near that of cable over the next few years. "We will see fiber reaching farther and farther into smaller and smaller communities," he predicts. So you install fiber to the curb and run conduit to individual homes to make future upgrades easier. The incremental cost of conduit is nothing compared to re-digging later.

The Existing Mile

New first-mile technologies hit the streets.

How do you retrofit broadband to an existing neighborhood without running new lines? Here are two new contenders.

Better than DSL

DSL isn't the only way to send broadband over existing phone lines. Cisco Systems conceived long reach Ethernet (LRE) technology as a retrofit for multifamily units with standard telephone wiring. But the San Jose, Calif.-based company is also making inroads into planned communities where there's no cable operator or fiber infrastructure.

Here's how it works: In a multifamily project, the service provider brings a broadband connection line to the building. A proprietary switch sends the signal through the building's phone network. Users connect to the network through a proprietary LRE modem. According to Steve Nye, general manager of Cisco's Building Broadband Solutions unit, LRE will deliver up to 15 Mbps of bandwidth in either direction. It would work the same way in a planned community, says Nye, with lines to individual homes branching from a central distribution point. Technically, the only difference is that there's no space between the walls.

Long reach Ethernet uses special routers and modems to deliver broadband over standard phone wire. LRE extends Ethernet over standard phone wiring across distances of up to 5,000 feet. Thus, a home that's three blocks from the central distribution point can use a LRE connection to get data to the house and the home network to distribute it once it arrives. Nye says that the technology requires a minimum of 12 users, and that it will start to pay for itself with 40 or 50 users. LRE naturally draws some skepticism. Dave Waks of Systems Dynamics, for instance, doubts the technology's ability to carry video. "It's a good near-term solution for retrofits," he says. "But I don't think it's even a contender for new construction."

Combat veteran

Wireless Internet typically consists of one transmitting antenna serving several receivers. Interference anywhere along the line of transmission could bring the connection down.

A new military spin-off could alleviate wireless's woes. Belmont, Calif.-based SkyPilot Networks is developing a wireless mesh technology in which each antenna in a system includes electronics that let it act as a receiver and a transmitter. If one transmission path is blocked, the signal looks for a better one, as is the case with the land-based Internet. Adding potential transmission makes the system more reliable. "The more links, the more people, the better it gets," says SkyPilot president Duncan Davis. "You don't want your neighbor sharing your cable modem line, but this is the opposite [of cable]."

Davis says that the technology was originally developed for battlefield use, where receiving antennas move around and often disappear. SkyPilot developed software to make it appropriate for residential applications. It's currently being tested on a group of homes in the San Francisco area.