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Last Updated: Monday, 27 December, 2004, 10:51 GMT
Broadband soars in 2004
By Jane Wakefield
BBC News technology reporter

Super jumbo jet
Broadband really took off in 2004
If broadband were a jumbo jet, then 2003 would have seen it taxiing down the runway, firing up its engines and preparing for take-off. But this year has seen it soar.

In the spring it literally took to the skies as Lufthansa and British Airways trialled it on flights.

This perhaps said more about how indispensable people were beginning to perceive the technology, rather than how useful sky-high broadband would actually be.

It was flying high and by the autumn, five million Britons had signed up for high-speed net access at home.

January - Prime Minister Tony Blair says broadband can drive public service reform
February - MPs urge for better broadband content
March - BT and Telewest drop cost of broadband services to below 20 per month
April - Ofcom says that 12% of homes now have broadband
May - BT reduces cost of local loop unbundling by 70%
June - Figures show 27% of net connections in UK are to broadband
July - Analysts warn of a new broadband divide as some areas get super-fast speeds
August - BT lifts distance limits on ADSL
September - Broadband outstrips dial-up for first time
October - Report finds that China leads the world for number of broadband connections
November - ISP UK Online launches an 8Mb product
December - Report shows that broadband is changing European TV watching habits

Such enthusiasm is unlikely to dampen any time soon and experts predict that by the end of next year the numbers will have risen to more than eight million, or more than 30% of homes.

The two key factors in whetting people's appetite were falling prices and a huge marketing push.

When operators such as BT and Telewest offered standard 512K broadband for less than 20 at the beginning of the year, it was as if an invisible barrier had been breached - broadband had truly gone mass market.

A feeding frenzy followed as firms vied for eyeballs in a price war reminiscent of that following the mass market take-up of dial-up.

Broadband for less than 10 was even touted by some firms, although such a low price raised eyebrows among more established companies questioning how they are able to sustain such business models.

Going mainstream

For those who became broadbanders in 2004 there was no turning back and the days of waiting for the modem to kick in began to seem as outdated an idea as a jungle without celebrities.

The rest of the world was also falling in love with the benefits of fast internet access, to the tune of 100 million connections worldwide by April, prompting research firm Point Topic to declare it one of the fastest growing technologies ever.

By September, the number of broadband connections in the UK finally overtook dial-up and in December BT announced that it was making a new broadband connection every 10 seconds.

Engineer inside BT exchange
Rivals in BT exchanges could mean big changes for broadband
Broadband was being mentioned on the 10 O'clock News and in the tabloids; the Sun even carried a cartoon joke about it.

But two of the most significant pieces of news for broadband were items that did not make the headlines.

In May, BT quietly announced that it was shaving 70% off the cost of allowing other operators access to its telephone exchanges, so-called local loop unbundling.

The vital local loop is the crucial link between telephone exchanges and homes. At the moment BT has a stranglehold on more than 80% of these lines making it the key voice in deciding what ADSL products get into homes.

With cheaper local loop unbundling, rivals to BT can offer faster services that will leave the broadband of today looking positively tortoise-like.

It will mean the UK will finally catch up with countries such as France and the Netherlands, where homes are routinely enjoying speeds of up to 15Mb (megabits per second).

And the major price fall means that, rather than just talk about it, companies are actually starting to get their own equipment into BT's exchanges.

It may not seem that exciting but it is a remarkable transition given that just a few years ago the arguments over local loop unbundling bore more than a passing resemblance to the Northern Ireland peace talks - fraught, bitter and with no end in sight.

Enjoy the ride

Another big piece of news for broadband users in 2004 was the extension of BT's reach, meaning more than 95% of the population could get broadband, regardless of how far away from the exchange they lived.

Many in remoter areas got connected in 2004
There was a slight caveat for those wanting to upgrade to 1Mbps broadband, they still have to live within six kilometres of a broadband-enabled exchange.

For thousands frustrated by their inability to get the technology, the news meant they could finally join in.

Broadband is not just about fast access over the telephone and cable operators NTL and Telewest also had a bumper year.

The biggest news for them was increased speeds, introducing 2Mb and 3Mb services for users and offering a free upgrade to those on 512K.

The cable operators are limited in their reach and it is perhaps testament to how big a deal local loop unbundling could become that even they are considering extending their range via this route.

Broadband can seem confusing for consumers, with the huge amount of operators offering so many different products, some with capped bandwidth and different length contracts and set-up fees.

It is unlikely to get any easier to understand in 2005 but remains a plane worth catching.

As it gets faster and offers extras such as cheap telephone calls online, the only real thing to remember for the coming year is to enjoy the ride.

Broadband steams ahead in the US
23 Dec 04 |  Technology
Broadband in the UK gathers pace
20 Dec 04 |  Technology
Huge rise in broadband uptake
17 Dec 04 |  Northern Ireland
Ofcom cuts prices for BT rivals
16 Dec 04 |  Business
Broadband challenges TV viewing
03 Dec 04 |  Technology
Broadband fuels online expression
02 Dec 04 |  Technology

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