I recently asked my 15-year old daughter what was happening with Napster. "It's dead," she said, "so I'm on BearShare now." I asked her how long it took to download a song with our PC and 56K modem. She rolled her eyes. "With our computer," she said indignantly, "about 20 minutes. I start downloading it, then I play the first part of it, then play the first part again, and then play it again."

For most people with a dialup Internet connection, 56K is top of the line. However, according to my daughter, many of her friends have DSL or cable broadband. With their computers, songs download faster than they play. Goodbye frustration, hello happy kid playing obscure garage-band tunes.

In the grand scheme of things, the speed at which a song downloads from the Internet can seem trivial. But Napster started at universities, pointed out Alcatel's James Fausch, since universities provided high-speed LAN access to the Internet. Broadband was the catalyst, and Napster created an entirely new social, legal and communications phenomenon.

It's a mistake, however, to assume that broadband speed is of interest to only the young and the restless. "Time will become the world's most precious commodity," said a recent article in The Futurist. "American workers already spend about 10 percent more time on the job than they did a decade ago."

For anyone operating on Internet time, waiting in line or waiting for a file to download can be frustrating.

Elected officials have also begun to realize the potential of high-speed data, voice and video. The introduction to the Broadband Internet Access Act of 2001, for example, states: "The Internet has been the single greatest contributor to the unprecedented economic expansion experienced by the United States over the last eight years. Increasing the speed that Americans can access the Internet is necessary to ensure the continued expansion."

Sponsors of the bill range from 80-year old Sen. Jesse Helms to Senate newcomer Hillary Clinton.

SPEED BUMPS AND BENEFITS

In order to mine the benefits of broadband, however, barricades must first be overcome. DSL, satellite and cable broadband rollout has been slower than expected, some of the more entrepreneurial broadband providers have gone under, and the Baby Bells have poured their revenues into investor dividends instead of research and development, then waited for their competitors to go away. In addition, the price of broadband service is rising, contrary to the familiar computing principle of "wait a few weeks and it will cost less."

Finally, the economics of broadband deployment favor cherry-picking densely populated and affluent areas, bypassing poor and rural customers, which may undermine the eventual impact. "A lot of discussion around this issue of unlimited broadband always assumes ubiquity in deployment," said Phil Burgess of the Center for the New West "because that's when a lot of interesting things begin to happen."

"Interesting things" may be an understatement. For years, we've had visions of virtual workplaces, courts, meetings, schools, medical treatments, etc. But lack of bandwidth has been the speed bump, if not the roadblock. Remember the videophones of the mid 1990s? They were plug-and-play on standard telephone lines but the picture was grainy, the color bad and they looked more like a slide show than a video. The units cost nearly $1,000 and, while the idea was good, lack of bandwidth made them a commercial flop.

Today, with Web cameras and broadband, parents at work can look in on their child's day-care provider, vacationers can check up on their homes and students in distant states can have face to face conversations with their parents.

Two different projects - The Next Generation Internet http://www.ngi.gov and Internet2