You've probably been hearing about broadband Internet connections for years and how zippy digital-subscriber lines and cable modems will quicken the flow of information across the Web, bringing businesses and customers closer together.
That hype is fading: Two years ago, Forrester Research was predicting 10 million residential broadband users; today, it's maybe two-tenths of that. Somewhat difficult to get installed (see tips below), broadband has also proved difficult to regulate, as the feds have tried to keep the market open to many competitors. Resolving "open access" held up the AOL-Time Warner merger for nearly a year.
But the demand for broadband remains strong because, for small businesses that rely on quick information, it can be a godsend. Bill Rogers owns the Hartwell Pharmacy in Hartwell, Ga., and he just installed a new kind of digital-subscriber line that gives his business high-speed access, telephone service and 22 television channels, all over existing copper phone wires.
He's put his folksy, walk-in business in the Internet's super-fast lane. "I have a lot of folks that come in and out," says Rogers, who fills more than 200 prescriptions a week. "I make a pound cake every Friday. People come in and say, 'Bill, When did you get cable?' And I say, 'I didn't.'"
With the same connection he uses to get CNN and ESPN in his shop, Rogers checks drug interactions online, researches side effects for medications, and tracks orders to drug companies and United Parcel Service. He can be online while attending to customers because his connection brings up Web pages in a second or two. AOL, in the past 18 months, has averaged between 14 and 20 seconds for a Web page download over a conventional dial-up connection.
"We're just a small-town drugstore," says Rogers. "I deliver all the little small-town stuff. People see me at church and say, 'Bill, I need a new prescription,' and I'll do it for them." Rogers does about $1.8 million a year in sales. Someday soon, he says, "I'd love to get e-mail prescriptions. We're on the cutting edge, and we're dragging our community with us. But they're not kicking and screaming. They love it."
According to a survey on Internet usage by the Yankee Group, a communications research firm based in Boston, 55 percent of small businesses with fewer than 100 employees have Internet access. Of the users, 65 percent have dial-up service, 10 percent have DSL, and 10 percent have cable modems. A DSL line costs about $60 a month and cable modem slightly less.
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