CES - Broadband fever spikes at CES

It would be easy to mistake the Consumer Electronics Show for one big party, with the booze, the pasted smiles, and 130,000 people milling about. But in reality, it's the Antwerp of technology. More than any gathering outside the White House, your future is decided here.

Broadband is in that future, and the bubble is upon us. The path to high-tech financial invincibility in 2006 is the triple play: phone, Internet, and interactive TV service over one wire. Broadband subscriptions, and turnover among carrier types, will bring in lots of money for carriers and content owners -- and fresh, faster connectivity to us mortals. In the second half of the year, the promised lands of video on demand and interactive television will be but a set-top box or a media-savvy PC away, and Intel and Microsoft showed the CES crowd that they have all the hardware and software bases covered. With that, blowing a full-fledged bubble requires only two added ingredients: wires and content.

We'll have an abundance of both. DSL and cable modems in most metropolitan areas have been stuck at 3Mbps for a long time, making services like broadband IPTV (Internet protocol television) unworkable. DirecTV's satellite data has been in a descending orbit. The boredom's over. Now that broadband carriers and Internet service providers have iTunes fever (the business model, not the product), they'll move earth and atmosphere to get those US$2 reruns of "Everybody Syndicates Raymond" to you.

I'm most excited about broadband over power lines, or BPL for short. The idea always made sense to me. Every building is loaded with power outlets, and every piece of equipment that needs networking spends some of its time plugged in to the wall. Engineering issues related to routing around transformers and keeping electromagnetic interference from knocking amateur radio operators off the air have kept BPL from widespread deployment in the States, even though BPL is out there in force in smaller Asian and European markets. Here, the HomePlug Powerline Alliance has overcome its own fits and starts to gather a quorum of tech players around standards, which seemed to number in the hundreds at CES. HomePlug chipheads' latest feat raises the potential speed of HomePlug power line networks to 100Mbps. No electrical utility has published service pricing, specific roll-out dates, or speeds yet, but initial marketing material for BPL indicates a push straight into broadband content distribution.

I mentioned Intel and Microsoft. At CES, their booths were a paper airplane's toss apart, but it was a mighty chilly corridor; neither had anything to say about the other. Perhaps Microsoft is pouting because of the short-lived fuss that Paul Otellini made over Apple, and Intel may be licking its wounds over Microsoft's unofficial yet enthusiastic support of AMD. Still, both booths were packed with the stuff of your future. Intel's Viiv campaign looks to turn its low-power x86 building blocks into the guts of versatile set-top boxes and home entertainment PCs. Microsoft put its Windows Embedded technology at the front of its booth -- I've never seen that before -- and tied that to its Media Player 11 and PlaysForSure mobile media brands. Whatever tiffs there are among vendors, they'll be patched up in time to pass around that most effective of mood enhancers: cash.

This broadband bubble won't burst.

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Tom Yager

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