"Come over here. I want to show you our Internet fridge," says Joe Kraus, co-founder of the Excite half of Excite@Home, as he leads us into the kitchen of its "Home of the Future" demonstration. This apartment off Union Square has been tricked out with high-tech gizmos from wall to wall. Sure enough, in the kitchen there's a fridge with a computer screen embedded in the door.
As Kraus explains, you can use it to surf for food bargains, check your e-mail, or perhaps peek in on the kids' room using a Webcam. "The whole point is to show people the type of stuff that is possible with broadband connections," Kraus explains. He pats the fridge. "This is just a really cool example of it."
Cool, but also something of an illusion. "The first problem is that the hype precedes the reality," Kraus admits. Service companies are plastering the city with high-speed-access ads and TV spots, displaying the typically unsubtle iconography of speed: turtles equipped with rockets (Flashcom); cars traveling at 326 miles an hour (a service whose slogan is "Red means go").
These ads stoke the excitement surrounding high-speed Net connections, but the service remains strangely difficult to buy. It's a classic Internet irony. The "Home of the Future" is in great shape; it's the home of the present that needs help.
High-speed access to the Net in your home -- equal or superior to the T1 access many people have at work -- is (theoretically) available in two forms: cable modems that hook up to your regular cable line and digital modems that connect to superfast phone lines, called digital subscriber lines (DSL). Offering a fat data signal, they provide Net connections from 12 to 100 times the speed of your current modem. But since the service has to be installed, it isn't quite as simple as buying a modem for your computer. And from there, things can get very messy indeed.
Consider my friend in Brooklyn. All summer long, he trawled the slew of subway and newspaper ads for cable modems and DSL. He works at home; he figured a superfast connection might actually pay for itself in efficiency, since he was doing research on the Net with a Precambrian 28.8 modem. Time Warner Cable, which has for two years been issuing giddy press releases about its national high-speed cable-modem service, Road Runner, could not help him. "They weren't servicing Park Slope until 2001," he marvels. In Manhattan, it's currently available only in an odd chunk of the Murray Hill-Gramercy Park neighborhood, from 59th to 67th, and on Roosevelt Island. (Roosevelt Island?)
So he shopped around for a DSL line. DSL travels over normal phone lines, but they need to be upgraded with special switches at the phone-company end to increase the wires' bandwidth. He finally found one company -- Flashcom -- that was able to hook up his apartment, for $59 a month. The only hitch was that the installation requires the cooperation of Bell Atlantic, which actually owns the phone lines. Bell's technicians failed to show up for a stunning total of eight appointments. When they finally installed the line, it didn't work, and needed further adjustments. It took two entire months to get the service up and running. "At one point, I spent an entire day sitting on my stoop, with my cordless phone and laptop, waiting for them to come," says my friend. "It was a nightmare. It's like a high-speed wasteland."
Actually, it's weirder than that. Thanks to technology quirks and internecine turf wars among service providers, New York's map is dotted with seemingly random pockets of service. Your neighbor across the street might be eligible for DSL right now; you, the loser, 40 feet away, will wait till the next millennium, perhaps longer.
"By law, Bell must comply with these companies. But since Bell is also rolling out its own DSL service, the relationship is a roiling stew of passive-aggressive behavior."
Bandwidth may be the latest in a long list of New York status items, after high-end stereos, cool cars, computers that could run a Third World country, and cell-phone service. High-bandwidth folks form an Internet elite. They can download pirate versions of the Blair Witch Project -- or Star Wars -- weeks before the public release. "It actually changes the entire way I surf. There's this whole other world of stuff you can get," brags Jack Mason, editorial director of the Manhattan new-media firm Frankfurt Blakind, who got a DSL connection at home in Weehawken, New Jersey.
High-speed connections are thus one of the few tech toys for which the manufacturers do not have to manufacture desire. "The pent-up demand is huge," says Amy McIntosh, president of consumer-data services for Bell Atlantic.
Bandwidth envy is perhaps sharpest in New York City, because the city has lagged so far behind other urban centers. There are currently more than 1 million cable-modem subscribers and nearly 300,000 DSL subscribers nationally, but only a wafer-thin portion of these are in New York. Indeed, the high-speed party seems to have started everywhere else. Bell Atlantic wired Washington, Philadelphia, and Boston, among other cities, with DSL. Time Warner long ago rolled out cable modems in smaller cities like Akron, Ohio, and Elmira, New York. Even Cambridge, Massachusetts, has such ready high-speed access that one woman I know had trouble renting her apartment because it didn't have broadband.