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Tuesday, 26 February, 2002, 12:33 GMT
Life in the fast lane
test hello test
By Jeremy Scott-Joynt
BBC News Online business reporter
One user tells his story of getting to grips with the high-speed internet
Not so long ago, I found myself needing to retrieve my email while away from home.

No bother, I thought. Get laptop out of bag. Connect to phone socket. Boot up e-mail program. Connect.

And wait. Ouch.

After 10 months of ADSL at home, I have to admit it.

My patience with that once-familiar screeching noise as the dial-up modem activates, the minute-long wait for connection to be complete, and the agonising anticipation as page components load one by one, has now completely evaporated.

I'm spoilt. I can't go back.

Early adopter

Having spent a career half as a freelance, half as a staff writer, and all covering technology in one form or another, ADSL - when it arrived in the UK last year - was nothing new to me.

Nor was it news that there was a gaping divide between the speed with which internet connections worked whenever I was working in an office, and the painful crawl I experienced at home.

And I also knew perfectly well that as soon as a broadband home connection became available, I'd be first in the queue. After all, my per-minute phone charges were nightmarish. Even 40 a month couldn't be much worse than what I was paying already.

Problem was, I didn't have that many options. Of the 200 houses in my road, cable provider NTL could connect to all but 10 of them - mine, unfortunately, was one of those excluded.

Ready to go

So ADSL it was. Initially BT promised rollout in mid-to-late 2000. I know; I was at the press conference. But, as these things do, the timescale slipped.

And so in February 2001 my local telephone exchange was ready for ADSL, and the nice voice on the end of the phone gave me a date three weeks hence in March for installation. For free, too, since I'd signed up "expressing my interest" the previous summer.

Five days ahead of time, I rang to check everything was still OK. To find that BTopenworld - the internet server provider arm of BT - had shifted the date to early April, They just hadn't got round to telling me.

Mildly miffed, I accepted the new date - and when the day came, the engineer was friendly, efficient and on time.

Alcatel SpeedTouch USB
Alcatel's USB modem: part of BTOpenworld's home kit
All done - including ringing a colleague because the sales team hadn't told him I needed a Macintosh installer disk - in little over an hour.

Configuring the machine was a breeze, and would probably have been so even for someone with much less technical experience than me. Simple instructions covering no more than a few sides of an A5 pamphlet, with big, self-explanatory pictures.

So there it sat on my desk. Cables from a rather ugly turquoise modem plugged into the USB port on the back of my PowerBook G4 and a modified wall socket.

Love at first sight

And my online life changed radically.

E-mails containing attachments downloaded in seconds. Updating software became a breeze rather than a chore.

My love of the movies was sated - film trailers which a dial-up modem would labour over for close to an hour were ready in minutes.

My brother, a photographer, could transmit full-size pictures without thinking twice, worrying about a dropped connection or about frightening phone bills at the end of the month.

For me, a journalist, online research became a breeze. Multiple windows open on screen, all pointing to different sources of information. Audio feeds from radio stations half a world away should I want them.

Not to mention the various Napster-style file-swapping services which - as an honourable copyright-respecting consumer - I never use. Honest.


But there are problems. For one thing, you need to be a real power user to make 40 a month justifiable. If prices for ADSL really fall to 25, I can imagine that would make a difference.

For another, the basic implementation offered by BTopenworld to consumers - the Alcatel USB modem, dubbed the "frog" by those who use it - is frankly not up to scratch.

Instead of the "always-on" of an office network or an Ethernet connection, you the user have to connect just like a dial-up modem. There may be no noise, and in normal circumstances it may only take a few second, but it still grates.

And the modem supplied is not as reliable as it should be. Alcatel appears not to be keen on updating the drivers - the bits of software which tell your computer how to talk to the modem - as often as it should.

For that reason, I'd strongly recommend considering the cheaper "wires-only" option. Fifty quid rather than 150 to set up, and BYO modem.

I've just acquired one, this time a 130 Ethernet-based one, because I'm moving my laptop to a newer operating system - Apple's new OS X - and the drivers Alcatel provides for it are so unreliable as to be unusable.

As long as your computer has an ethernet port - that's all Macs sold in the past four years or so, and a majority of modern Windows PCs - the process of ditching the frog in favour of the new box should be as pain-free as it was for me.

Although I'd advise anyone with a technically-minded friend to keep their number handy, just in case.

And shop around. BTopenworld is not the only game in town, as it was when I signed up. Read the reviews online - ADSLguide covers most of the options available, as well as surveying modems for those choosing the DIY route.

But whichever you choose, if you're a moderate to heavy user, there's only one significant problem with ADSL.

You can't go back. Ever. Waiting for a dial-up connection... thank you, but no.

See also:

19 Nov 01 | dot life
Is broadband working?
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