Multitasking heaven
While dad watches ball game, the kids see Shrek

By Simon Avery
Saturday, June 5, 2004 - Globe and Mail

Most people surfing the Web are as likely to know what speed the network is operating at as they are to know the number of horsepower under the hood of their automobile. Things either move fast enough, or they don't.

Internet service providers, who have recently added significant zip to their broadband offerings, readily admit that there's little value in advertising the latest speeds. For one thing, the rates vary depending on several factors -- the number of other people logged on to the same cable service, the age and quality of the phone line, and the speed and configuration of the PC.

Ultimately, however, increasingly higher speeds are reshaping the way individuals use the Internet. A year ago, the top service ran at download speeds of about three megabits per second. That's fast enough to view a video stream, but it doesn't allow much extra capacity to perform other tasks at the same time. At five Mbps, there should be enough capacity to run more than one video, or add applications, such as interactive games.

Having more than one window of video open may sound excessive, but the increasing presence of wireless networks in the home, combined with higher transmission speeds, means families could be watching multiple shows on different PCs -- off the same connection.

A standard five-Mbps cable connection to the home today means that in peak conditions subscribers can download a regular song or movie trailer in just a second or two. In just minutes, they could import a copy of the movie Shrek 2, which runs more than 90 minutes.

Many people are going a step beyond downloading video. By adding an external video card, they are able to watch television on their PCs and turn their hard drive into a storage site for hours of TV programming, replacing the need for VCRs and DVDs.

Increasingly, mainstream entertainment is being packaged and sold for these high-speed networks. Major League Baseball, for example, now streams live video of its games to a subscriber's PC for $14.95 (U.S.) a month. Bell Canada, meanwhile, has an exclusive Canadian partnership with the National Hockey League to stream expanded highlights of games to broadband subscribers through a service called NHL Snapshot.

A number of Web sites help consumers get a measurement on connection speeds:  -- One of several sites dedicated to monitoring actual download and upload speeds of service providers. Canadian cable companies are regularly ranked at or near the top; major telecom services rank lower. -- Bandwidth Place, a Calgary-based consultancy, runs a tool that allows visitors to measure the performance of their connections. -- Run by U.S. retailer Office Depot, this site also offers speed testing, advising visitors to measure their connections regularly because speeds change daily.