Broadband Gets Blame

Erik Jay
"Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" — survivors of the original 1960s hippie era claim ownership of the phrase, but so do the aging rockers of the 1970s and even retirees from the spandex-and-big-hair bands of the 1980s. On the other hand, adult-oriented e-commerce professionals of the new millennium care less about the provenance of the saying than the fact that middle- class adults with this mind-set make up the majority of Internet shoppers.

It is common knowledge that sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, without question, are the biggest businesses in cyberspace. And the continuing advances in both the connection speed and market share of broadband suggest this domination will continue.

Surveys done since 1998 by the Pew Research Center show that the number of heavy Internet users — those who are online more than 10 hours per week — grows yearly, while the proportion of heavy users buying adult materials stays constant.

The fairly unshackled technological sector, however, moves much more quickly, and things change with lightning speed in the world of adult entertainment. In addition to the gargantuan task of getting products to market, building a brand and promoting this week's "new, improved, latest and greatest," online merchandisers of adult-oriented toys, magazines, movies and miscellany also have to navigate the waters of law, politics, technology and media — and cultural conflicts as well.

Of course, online purveyors of grown-up goods will never even get a chance to address these concerns if they don't have enough customers to stay in business. So when you put aside the production issues, the hardware and software, the politics, the legislative battles and the culture wars, the fundamental business challenge is the same one faced by any business, of any kind, anywhere, at any time: finding, reaching, selling to and servicing customers.

The World Wide Web Consortium brought standards to the information superhighway in 1994, essentially placing a graphical user interface (GUI) layer atop the connective underpinnings we call the Internet. For the next eight or 10 years, adult entrepreneurs and everyone else had to deal with an overwhelming majority of customers using dial-up modems. It was a mere two or three years ago, depending on whose figures you use, that new broadband connections in the U.S. outpaced new dial-up accounts for the first time. (The worldwide trend to high-speed has been accelerating for twice as long, though the U.S., as usual, is lagging behind. See chart above.)

Remember 14.4 Kbps
From the mid- to late-1990s, data was shuttled over phone lines at speeds from 14.4 to 56.6 Kbps. Some confusion has always attended discussions of download and upload speeds because of misunderstandings about bits and bytes. The fastest dial-up connection is 56,000 bits per second, which is 56.6 kilobits; at eight bits per byte, this converts to a theoretical maximum of just over 7Kb (kilobytes) per second. With government regulations and technical "overhead" factored in, the real-world maximum download under optimum conditions rarely exceeds 50- 52Kbps, and is often much less.

In any event, download speeds for residential Internet users increased by only a factor of about four in the first decade of the web. This wasn't a problem for, say, essayists, booksellers or other text-based websites, but as music, photography and movies all went digital, customer demand for faster, bigger and better adult entertainment reached another critical mass. And, truth be told, it's sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll that drives most technological innovation — but the simple reporting of net usage and trends is spun any number of ways, as long as it leads to a negative portrayal of the adult entertainment industry.

Having it Both Ways
When Internet measurement firm Nielsen/NetRatings reported last year that the number of European users with high-speed Internet connections had grown by 136 percent in the previous year, a BBC news story reported, "High-speed net access in Europe is growing fast, boosted by demand for porn and music."

In short order, politicians and pundits around the world joined the anti-porn chorus (again) to get maximum mileage from the controversy. Joseph Santiago, former chief of the Philippines' National Telecommunications Commission and a candidate for the country's House of Representatives, blamed the advent of "cheap, high-speed Internet access" for the proliferation of pornography and so-called "cybersex" activities. He was elected.

The media is full of this type of finger pointing. But it is also full of the exact opposite argument. In the other version of anti-porn propaganda, instead of "cheap broadband" causing the spread of porn, there is a burgeoning population of porn peddlers (and buyers, of course) driving the development of delivery systems to carry it.

Reuters did a series of articles in 2005 and 2006 on Internet pornography, linking advances in home entertainment devices to the popularity of adult entertainment.

"As goes pornography," one of the articles claimed, "so goes technology. The concept may seem odd, but history has proven the adult entertainment industry to be one of the key drivers of any new technology in home entertainment. Pornography customers have been some of the first to buy home video machines, DVD players and subscribe to high-speed Internet."

So which is it? Did the availability of faster and better connections cause a tsunami of pornography to engulf unwitting Internet users, get them hooked on freebies and thus replenish the porn-addict population? Or was there an existing and growing customer base for adult products, whose status as "early adopters" dovetailed with the ongoing efforts of adult entrepreneurs to find, reach, sell to and service them?

It is unquestionably the latter, but there's nothing nefarious about it.

J. Angelo Racoma is a professional blogger who writes about high-tech and business for his J Spot website.

"Without porn, we wouldn't have the Internet as we have it now," Racoma says. "We'd probably still be using text-based browsers to look up content, or at least the visual interface wouldn't be as appealing as what we have now. But to blame broadband for porn? I think it's more like porn is one of the reasons we have broadband."

A still image was perhaps 50-100 Kb of data for an adult site to push over a phone line to a 28.8 Kbps modem in 1994. Delivery took between 30 seconds and a minute, depending on numerous variables. But customers wanted more, bigger, better and eventually moving pictures, so adult entrepreneurs stayed abreast of the technology and used it to the max every step of the way. The adult industry became the earliest of early adopters, the better to serve its growing customer base, and rode the tech wave of the 1990s into a new millennium of increasingly accelerated broadband development.

Dial-up evolved into broadband because that's what technology does — it evolves. A "demand" for various Internet products and services helped create a "supply" of bandwidth, but this is a value-neutral process; librarians and rocket scientists have just as much of a "need for speed" as adult film fans.

The speeds of most residential broadband services still do not allow for the best quality video-on-demand, as the MPEG-2 compression scheme requires about 6 Mbps for good results. The newer, more highly compressed MPEG-4 format delivers arguably higher quality video at 2 Mbps, which is still at the high end of current cable-modem and DSL performance.

So, as broadband market share in the U.S. experiences a growth spurt and technology marches on to provide ever-greater bandwidth and speed for end users, adult Internet businesses will continue to reap the benefits of what they've been sowing since the first days of the Internet. Adult film producers in particular should look forward to the day when the download speeds are so stable and fast that VOD means watching DVD-quality streams and download-to-DVD (or the next-generation mass storage) gets you a movie in mere minutes.

The way things are going, it won't be long until the onrushing digital convergence brings true virtual reality into the home with 3-D, holographic form, and perhaps even substance. We can't know exactly what the technology will be, how the projection will work or how big the images will be — two feet, three feet or ten — but there are a few safe bets.