Living the Broadband Life
July 15, 2004 | By KATIE HAFNER
Late Edition - Final, Section G, Page 1, Column 2
DEBRA GIBB has had a high-speed Internet connection in her home longer than anyone she knows. In late 1996, when Time Warner Cable began trials here for its cable modem service, Ms. Gibb leapt at the chance to become one of the first residential broadband users in the nation. She was beta tester No. 6 in San Diego, she said.
Since then, Ms. Gibb, 47, her husband, Tom, 46, and their teenage twin sons have been in the vanguard of the broadband way of life that now defines this city of 1.2 million people.
Like many San Diegans, the Gibb family use the Net for the same things people elsewhere do - e-mail, shopping, games, trip planning. But they do more of it. Broadband, with its "always on" connection, is so ingrained here that residents can't imagine life without it. For them, the Internet is like hot and cold running water - available 24 hours a day with a flick of the wrist.
San Diego was one of the first cities in the nation to get residential high-speed Internet connections, and some 55 percent of households with Internet access have high-speed cable modem or D.S.L. service - a higher percentage than in any other metropolitan area in the country, according to a survey by comScore Networks, a market research firm. Next in line, according to comScore, are Boston, where 53 percent of wired households have high-speed connections, and New York, with 51 percent.
San Diego and other cities with such heavy broadband use serve as signposts for what other cities might come to expect in a future when such service is an omnipresent and vital part of daily life.
Before getting in their cars, for instance, San Diegans routinely check traffic online. If conditions look unbearable they can use their broadband connections to work from home.
According to comScore, Internet users in San Diego are more likely than others elsewhere to shop online. They spend more money online than Internet users in other cities, and they visit more Web sites.
San Diegans use the Web to read the news, to check the tide's comings and goings and to tap into the surf-cams that line the local beaches so they can find the best waves.
They use the Web to reserve and renew library books and, increasingly, to buy their groceries.
Ms. Gibb, who until recently was vice president for operations at a local telecommunications company, does much of her shopping online, often starting with eBay. She still shops locally, she said, but seldom leaves the house before checking on essentials like a store's hours. She rarely uses her phone book. So steeped is she in the broadband way of life that when traveling, she will not even consider staying in a hotel that does not offer high-speed Internet access.
When the Gibbs were house-hunting three years ago and thinking of leaving Scripps Ranch, a sprawling development of about 12,000 homes at the northeast corner of San Diego, they found a house they loved in Poway, just three miles north.
"Everything about it was perfect," Ms. Gibb said. "It had a great layout, and five acres. Everything." But when they found out that no broadband service was available in the neighborhood, they decided not to buy. "It was like saying there was no electricity," she said.
San Diegans use the Web to buy their cars, and if they could go online to fill their gas tanks, they would. "You can't buy gas online, but you can track gas prices locally," said Mark Juergensen, 43, a Scripps Ranch resident who, like Ms. Gibb, was one of the earliest broadband users in San Diego.
Scripps Ranch was one of the first places in San Diego to get Time Warner's high-speed service, called Road Runner. The average annual income in Scripps Ranch is $73,000, and that relative affluence is one of the reasons it was chosen as a testbed.
For Mr. Juergensen, a software engineer, the benefits of his broadband connection go well beyond online price comparisons. His company is 45 minutes north of Scripps Ranch, in San Clemente, and he is able to work from home two or three days a week. That would not be possible if he had only a dial-up connection. "File sizes have gotten too big," he said. "It's rare I work with anything that isn't 10 megabytes."
The Juergensens no longer get the newspaper everyday. Instead, like the Gibbs, they read The San Diego Union-Tribune online. Mr. Juergensen's 4-year-old son, Drew, has come to expect that whenever he pushes the WWW button on the keyboard, the browser will head straight to Playland Disney. Mr. Juergensen's wife, Susan, knows that she is expected to check her e-mail for any and all information pertaining to Drew's soccer league. And when it came time to look for play groups for her 10-month-old, Mara, word of mouth came via the Web.
Ms. Gibb tells stories about the early days of broadband use with the gusto of an old-timer describing the advent of electricity. Time Warner chose San Diego as one of the original test markets because the company was installing a sophisticated fiber-optic network. The other test cities were Portland, Me.; Akron, Ohio; and Elmira, N.Y.
When five Time Warner installation technicians showed up at the Gibb home, the sixth household in the city to get connected, Ms. Gibb knew she was part of something very new. "It was unknown territory," she said. In the middle of the long installation procedure, Ms. Gibb, an expert in computer networking, asked if she could go down to the truck and cut some cable herself. "These guys didn't have a clue," she said. "I'll never forget it."
There were technical glitches at first, but relatively few, she said. The new service caught on quickly around San Diego. Other cable and telephone companies began offering competing high-speed services as well.According to comScore, roughly four of five high-speed Internet users in the city have cable modem service; the others have D.S.L.
The utility and power of a fast connection is now something that such families simply expect to be there, like a cold refrigerator, a dial tone and hundreds of cable TV channels. Time Warner Cable now has some 100,000 cable modem customers in the area.
When a visitor tells Ms. Gibb that other areas of the country have yet to catch up, and that broadband connections are still a novelty for a lot of people, she looks surprised.
"Really?" she says.
The large, airy upstairs den in the Gibb home is the electronics hub, filled with computers, printers, a cable modem and a router. Downstairs are another two computers and a printer. Everything is on a network.
Each of their 13-year-old twin sons, Morgan and Cayman, has his own computer, and neither can remember life without broadband.
"You could take away the TV before you could take away the Web," said Ms. Gibb. "If we have to punish them, we take away the computer, or we limit it, because they still have to use it to do their schoolwork." Morgan lost his instant messaging privileges once for a month. "He went nuts," said Ms. Gibb.
A fire that swept through Scripps Ranch nine months ago, destroying 312 homes, made the neighborhood's dependence on the Web especially clear. Ms. Gibb recounts it as if it happened yesterday. She and her family evacuated the morning after the fire started. The computer, a small safe and some tax records were the only things she put in the car.
The sky was so hazy with smoke that helicopters could not give an accurate picture of which houses were still standing. For the first two days, the Gibbs checked by calling the house and waiting for the answering machine to pick up. But by Tuesday, the electricity to the area was out.
From their hotel, the Gibbs logged on to scrippsranch.org, a Web site run by the Scripps Ranch Civic Association, which was posting street addresses of homes known to have been destroyed.
They were, it turned out, part of a virtual stampede.
On Sunday, the first day of the fire, 4,400 people went to the Web site looking for information, nearly 20 times the normal number. The next day, that number had shot up to 44,000 and on Tuesday, the site had 122,000 visitors, with many looking for information about the fate of their homes or those of friends.
Greg Minter, 23, the Web master of scrippsranch.org, was one of the few people allowed into the burned areas, escorted by police officers. Using a wireless modem, he posted the street address of burned houses at the Web site as he found them. The site came to be one of the quickest and most reliable sources of news. "That Web site was a real lifeline," Ms. Gibb said.
Without the pervasiveness of broadband in Scripps Ranch, she said, certain options would not exist. For example, the gated entry area to the Gibbs' neighborhood was vandalized recently, and the incident was caught on video as it happened. Immediately, digital photos of the vandals were e-mailed around the neighborhood; the culprits were identified and quickly caught.
"I doubt we'd have done anything like this in the days of low bandwidth dial-up connections," she said.
Then there are the more frivolous ways in which San Diegans consider the Web an indispensable part of their day.
Tally Kuhl, 29, a firefighter and avid surfer who lives in Scripps Ranch, uses his broadband connection to see how the waves are breaking at his favorite beaches, courtesy of a surf-cam site.
"Most of the time I check it before going out," he said. And, of course, he checks the real-time traffic maps posted by the California Department of Transportation before getting in his car.
San Diegans are already thinking about greater speeds. "A lot of people are looking for more streaming and more online gaming," said Ernie Villicana, vice president for marketing at Time Warner Cable in San Diego.
The company is testing a premium service that runs at double the speed that most broadband households get today. When the new service arrives in San Diego, the Gibb family will no doubt be one of the first to sign up.
"I'm definitely looking for what's next," said Ms. Gibb, not flinching at the idea of paying perhaps $30 more a month. "I would jump on that in a minute."
|Published online with permission of The New York Times, July, 2004|