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WORKING WEEKEND: Broadband Takes the ‘Sub' Way

8 Mar, 2002 By: Bruce Apar

Remember the membership fees charged by video rentailers? They're back. This time they're subscriptions, and they are the preferred business model for the technology that hovers like a dark cloud over packaged media.

Broadband, anyone?

It's not just broadband. Take Netflix, the online DVD rental service that is ready for its close-up with a newly-minted initial public offering to raise more than $100 million. Netflix "members" pay a flat rate of $19.95 a month for all-you-can-rent as long as no more than three titles are out at any one time.

Everywhere you look online, there's the "s" word, for subscription. TiVo, the digital video recorder company, is hiking its rate $3 to $12.95 a month ($250 for a lifetime sub) and has tallied 380,000 subscribers at the $9.95 rate, with another quarter-million subs projected by January 2003.

Sony, about to make a play for online gaming via PlayStation2, already has seen the power of a subscription model with its EverQuest online role-playing game for PCs. It's reported that 400,000 subscribers pay $10 monthly to play EverQuest whenever they want.

Director David Lynch -- the mastermind behind Eraserhead, Elephant Man, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks -- just launched his own Web site with the disclaimer that because it is sans advertising he has no choice but to charge, what else? 10 bucks a month. Is there a pattern here?

You can decide for yourself if this Web site is compelling enough to attract a Lynch mob (of, say, 400,000 or so), by clicking on davidlynch.com.

Having paid a cursor-y visit myself to the Lynch burg in cyberspace, it's hard to say if it's worth a tenspot every 30 days without actually signing up, which I declined to do for now. What's easier to say is it offers further evidence that ambitious online entertainment like this must be experienced on a high-speed Internet broadband connection, unless you are a retiree with infinite patience who thinks waiting for slow downloads is more fun than watching water boil. One way to describe the difference experiencing the Internet with a phone modem versus broadband is "trickle or treat."

If you're wondering whether the recurring talk of broadband breaking through "this year" is a remake of the video-on-demand perennial predictions, it's not.

Because the Internet has become a quality-of-life staple for the masses, and because broadband brings a quantum upgrade in that quality, high-speed digital connections are quickly replacing dial-up modems.

Nielsen/NetRatings just announced that January 2002 was the first month broadband usage – at 1.2 billion hours – accounted for more than half of all time spent online. It was a 64 percent increase from the 727 million broadband hours counted in January 2001, which was 38 percent of all online time that month.

"Broadband usage has hit mainstream," reads the sound bite served up by Nielsen.

Maybe so, but I just had a field day with another brand of broadband -- 20th Century Fox's DVD of Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, hitting the street this Tuesday. The group-grope commentary track is rather rambunctious but fun, with one participant even suggesting at the end they go back and re-record the commentary for the first few scenes, when they were still nervous. Luhrmann nixes that idea.

Plus, there are "galleries" from the director, cinematographer and designers; two music videos; script-to-screen excerpts; and interviews. Oh, yeah, and the movie is real cool, too. Put all that in your Internet pipe and smoke it.

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