The Internet is back in vogue.
When terror struck on Sept. 11, bewildered Americans sought information. People at home could just switch on their televisions. But others at work had to turn to the Internet: the poor-me medium battered by bad press and a crumbling economic outlook.
Indeed, during the week following the attack, the Internet experienced a staggering increase of visitors. They were seeking news about the tragedy and transportation conditions. Both
tripled their numbers of daily users -- to 4.6 million and 4.2 million respectively -- according to Jupiter Media Metrix, a technology-research company.
In addition, busy telephone lines forced many to contact loved ones via email, and shuttered workplaces forced employees to work from home, communicating through instant messages and chat rooms.
No doubt the technology and dot-com bust threw into question the promise of the Internet. But the increased use of the medium during the recent terrorist crisis highlighted its power as a communications vehicle.
This is not to say that the Internet is suddenly without glitches. Not only is high-speed Internet access still riddled with bugs, but many end users still use dial-up modems. To be sure, a good number of those seeking information during the tragedy encountered slow-loading Web pages and failed applications due to the inability of phone-based modems to load high-bandwidth audio and video. And with viruses like Code Red continuing to clog email inboxes, Web surfing slowed to a crawl for those using older technologies.
But the need for information during the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon may help push broadband to more end users, suggests Drake Johnstone, an analyst at Davenport and Co. "With people more attuned to news in the wake of the attacks, people may continue to access the Internet more. That's positive for broadband access."
Digital subscriber line providers, cable modem makers and high-speed Internet access companies may see a rise in demand as surfers grow increasingly frustrated with slower phone connections. And with a recession on the horizon, fears about terrorism peaking and a pervasive gloom settling into the American consumer psyche, some analysts believe that people will spend more of their leisure time indoors, surfing the Internet, rather than going to the movies or out to restaurants.
As a result, they may well decide to upgrade to broadband," said John Corcoran, a research analyst with CIBC World Markets, who added that other home-based technologies, like digital cable, also could see increased demand as homebodies seek to make their television experience more enjoyable. The near-term winners, Corcoran says, will be companies like
that provide high-speed Internet services at a premium price.
"Has September 11th given a mini-catalyst to broadband?" he asked. "I think the answer may be yes."
And given signs of increased demand for broadband services at certain companies, such speculation might become certainty. Time Warner Cable, which provides high-speed Internet access via cable modems and its RoadRunner service, said lines for its retail cable modem products have been longer than usual.
"I can't quantify it, but anecdotally we've had longer lines," said Mike Luftman, a Time Warner Cable spokesman, who noted that cable modem self-installation kits were particularly popular. "We had to ship hundreds more to get them to people."
Time Warner Cable declined to provide data on the trend before it reports earnings in early October. But Johnstone agrees that increased demand for faster Internet connections could be on the way, especially in the New York area. "What is interesting is that companies may be spending money to make sure employees can obtain secure access to networks from home," he said.
But it's difficult to determine whether increasing demand for broadband is just a New York phenomenon or a larger trend. Companies that sell the gear in retail outlets have yet to break down sales of the last few weeks on a category-by-category basis. Also, because high-speed access is a growth area, it may be tough to isolate the effect of the World Trade Center attack on overall demand.
Yet one thing is certain:
and other retailers see broadband services as a new source of revenue.
According to Circuit City spokesman Bill Cimino, the company added specialized broadband retail units, complete with demonstration kiosks, in all of its 600-plus stores. Best Buy offers a similar service, allowing consumers to compare the different services available in their local area. And retailers are making it easier for customers to buy high-speed access by offering a wide variety of options at different prices.
"People now know they can get that kind of speed at home and it interests them," said Cimino.