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Broadband hits the mainstream

DSL is reaching the far corners of the U.S., but service is far from plug and play, frustrating less technically savvy customers.

You know broadband has hit the mainstream when you can get service in my hometown of Lewes, Delaware.

With a population of 3,000, Lewes (pronounced with two syllables like Lew-is) is a small beach community at the mouth of the Delaware River. It's a sleepy town for nine months of the year, and bursts to life in the summer. With super low property taxes and no sales tax, Delaware and Lewes in particular have become a haven for retirees.

Two years ago, most people in the community had no clue there was any other way to connect to the Internet other than dial-up. They had grown used to the gurgling sound their PCs made when connecting to the Internet and 56 kilobits was enough to cover the basics, such as checking e-mail. Lewes has joined the thousands of other towns across the U.S. where broadband services are expanding. It seems like everyone is talking about upgrading their Internet service, as the local telephone company, Verizon, pushes hard to sign-up new subscribers.

My 64-year-old Aunt Mary is just one that is jumping on the broadband bandwagon. She isn't what you'd call an Internet power-user. She isn't into swapping music files. I doubt she has ever heard of Napster or Kazaa. Aunt Mary uses the Internet mostly to keep in touch with her four kids and their families who are scattered all over the U.S.

For her the prospect of downloading pictures of her grandchildren instantaneously rather than waiting 20 minutes for the file to download over her AOL connection was enough incentive for her to move to broadband. Of course the $29.95 introductory offer from Verizon was also a good incentive.

Even though Aunt Mary is happy to get rid of her sluggish dial-up account, the transition hasn't been smooth. Her biggest complaint is that the service is difficult to set up. Before she could even access her e-mail there was a laundry list of software to download. She particularly didn't like the fact that she had to add special plug-in filters to every phone in her house. Two weeks after signing up for the service she still wasn't connected and was very frustrated.

One day as we sat on the beach in front of her house, she turned to me and said, "You know about all this computer stuff donÂ’t you? When are they going to make it so that you can just plug something in and it works?"

To be honest I had no answer for her. But it got me thinking. Aunt Mary was willing to give broadband a shot mostly because it was offered from a trusted carrier she already has done business with. Verizon not only provides her with local phone calling, but also long distance calling. She signed up for wireless service through Verizon last winter. (She still doesn't know how to use voicemail, but she's learning.) When making the leap to broadband, Verizon was the logical choice.

Verizon and the other Baby Bells are banking on broadband adoption for their companies' future growth. They've built out their foot print to places like Lewes, and they are marketing these new services aggressively. But unless they can do little things to make the user experience easier and more convenient, such as improving the set-up process or truly delivering a single bill to customers, mainstream customers, like my Aunt Mary, may ditch them and look for broadband services elsewhere, like from cable, satellite or wireless companies.