Sometimes it seems that if e-commerce ultimately emerges victorious as a true contender in the mass market, it will do so in spite of extraordinary obstacles.
Among them: public distrust, privacy complications, security glitches, under-capitalization, and perhaps most importantly, the need for speed.
It’s that demand for instant gratification and results that is casting a spell over Internet business. Technically, we refer to it as the “broadband problem,” but it’s all about short attention spans and uneven fast access across the country.
As to who will win this race — cable companies or telecom companies — it almost does not matter. What matters is the average Joe sitting in front of his PC, more drawn to tonight’s “Survivor” episode on TV than to the page tediously loading in front of him.
Let’s face it. Either we speed up the process, across the board, or we lose a significant part of the potential consumer base.
We cannot really expect the American public, increasingly accustomed to over-stimulation and fast everything, to sit idly by waiting for something to show up on the screen. If we want to grow the online market, broadband access must extend itself to all corners of the United States.
Other emerging technologies were widely available in this country simultaneously in rural and urban areas. A farmer in Central Illinois could buy his first VCR the same day as someone in Chicago, for example, went to the store and got his. Not so with broadband.
How significant a problem is the lack of fast access? Robert Crandall, an economist with the Brookings Institution, reports only 8 percent of U.S. households have broadband service.
Is It Necessary?
Since so few people have broadband service, and the world is currently used to doing without it, do we even need it?
E-tailers, it turns out, could be the greatest beneficiaries of widespread broadband availability. Crandall says there are five areas in which consumers would benefit by general fast access availability: entertainment services, telemedicine, conventional telephone services, reduced commuting and home shopping.
If we continue to hope that online shopping will truly compete with brick-and-mortar establishments, then faster, more efficient online experiences are the key to allowing e-tailers become formidable contenders.
Closing the Sale
Considering the high percentage of abandoned virtual shopping carts, fast access begins to emerge as an element of online selling and shopping that is almost as crucial as funding.
E-tailers can continue to create and offer the most innovative sites possible with great pricing, service and fulfillment, but if potential customers run out of time and patience during the experience, it’s all for nothing.
It appears the online business community could use a boost from some powerful backers.
Uncle Sam Speaks
Enter the Federal Communications Commission.
In April, FCC chairman Michael Powell had this to say to the U.S. House of Representatives about the George W. Bush administration’s role in furthering broadband access in America:
“We will do everything we can to facilitate the timely and efficient deployment of a broadband infrastructure to promote the growth of technologies that can compete with each other.”
Spartan Political Choice
Mr. Powell’s detractors are quick to point out the FCC has little real interest in seeing it happen. Further, Internet service providers, bearing the brunt of criticism for slow access, do not own the phone lines, and there’s not much the FCC can do about that.
In a way, the FCC is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t, in that if the agency appears to favor telephone companies dominating the broadband market, then cable companies can cry foul, and vice versa.
The best political stance? Judging by its actions so far, the FCC would probably favor staying neutral and largely ineffective.
Technology vs. Politics
The battle for control of broadband access in the U.S. is still in its infancy, but e-tailers will be the most likely victims if some sort of resolution is not found.
Just as online merchants could benefit the most from coast-to-coast broadband infrastructure and availability, they could suffer the greatest loss of credibility and sales if widespread fast access takes too long to emerge.
So, who’s winning the race to control broadband thus far? According a June report from Kinetic Strategies, cable companies are leading with about 6.4 million fast-access customers, compared to DSL (digital subscriber line) providers with fewer than 3 million.
That leads us to a collective, “So what?” Added together, there are less than 10 million computers accessing the Internet at anything more than slow motion. The natives are growing restless.
Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.