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Thursday, February 25, 1999 Published at 16:13 GMT


The DSL dinosaur?

Copper wire faces strong competition for high-speed Internet access

By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall

Telecommunications experts at a London conference have questioned whether DSL's promise, as a technology for delivering high-speed Internet access, can ever be fulfilled in the UK.

Oftel's Peter Walker on the local loop
The "Unbundling in the UK" conference on maximising the use of the old copper wire phone network - principally through DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) - was told that regulatory and technical delays as well as economic conditions could mean DSL's time may have already come and gone.

DSL's usefulness may expire

Martin Ward, Technical Director of Marconi Communications said business was turning to optical fibre and point-to-point radio for its broadband access. Mobile services were also gearing up to offer high-speed data transmission.

There would be small business and residential opportunities for DSL up to 2002, although it would face competition from cable modems. From 2002 onwards, there would be major fixed and mobile radio competition, he said.

"So if it takes till 2002 to get DSL regulatory issues sorted out, the window of its usefulness might be closed."

Mobile to outstrip fixed lines

Research carried out by Ovum for the European Union suggests that the number of mobile subscribers will outstrip the number of standard fixed telephone lines by 2004. Fixed lines are set to rise from 192m in 1997 to 211m, mobile customers from 52m to 251m.

DSL is the next advance in broadband access over ordinary phone lines after 56k modems and ISDN. It comes in a number of flavours offering anything from 256k/s to 50Mb/s download speeds.

One version gaining favour known as G.Lite (1.5mb/s downloads, 384K/s uploads) does not require a telephone engineer to install it, with the user being able to just plug the modem into a socket and run a simple software installation "wizard".

Compaq's latest PCs on sale in the US have G.Lite modems built-in, but it could be some time before they are a required feature in the UK.

Copper is everywhere

The big advantage of the copper wire phone network is its ubiquity - BT's network covers 85% of homes and businesses.

But DSL services are currently only available in North-West London, through BT, and in Hull, courtesy of the independent telecom group, Kingston Communications.

Both schemes are limited trials, BT's ending in July. Kingston says it plans to deliver a range of broadband services using DSL technology beginning later this year. BT has no published plans for DSL past the current trial.

Would DSL be affordable?

Mike Valiant, Marketing Development Manager of the networking giant and modem maker 3Com, says he believes BT can not operate the service as a commercial success at its current pricing level of £30 a month.

He told the Internet Service Providers conference (ISPCON) on Tuesday that he expected the price to be pushed up to around £100, making it affordable for small businesses rather than the ordinary consumer.

[ image: The latest 3Com U.S.Robotics ADSL modem]
The latest 3Com U.S.Robotics ADSL modem
He said UK users may also be frustrated in wanting to buy DSL modems from their local computer store - BT currently insisted on its own engineers installing equipment and modifying lines.

DSL's adoption would also be hindered by standards being delayed, new equipment having to be installed in every exchange and the quality of the copper network only giving it an 80% reach.

In comparison, cable modem systems could be implemented centrally by companies and these now had an 18-month lead over DSL, he said.

BT and others would need thousands of Internet subscribers to offset their capital investments, he added, but DSL still had a future because copper wire technology would find customers where there was no cable provision.

Oftel consults on copper's future

The telecommunications regulator Oftel produced a consultation document in December on using the copper wire network to provide broadband services.

"Access to bandwidth : Bringing higher bandwidth services to the consumer" concentrated on the issue of unbundling the local loop - making available the connection between the home and business to the local exchange to companies other than BT.

At Monday's "Unbundling" conference, organised by the Institution of Electrical Engineers to discuss the issue, Oftel's Technology Director Peter Walker said the arrival of DSL had acted as a "clarion call" to Oftel to consider regulation if appropriate.

He said one test was to see whether there was effective demand combined with a willingness to pay for a service.

"The growth of the Internet itself says there is a buoyant demand, BT have launched their Home Highway [ISDN] product, indicating consumers are willing to pay for faster access, and there are certain investment plans that people are making that suggests there is a market there to be addressed."

But he pointed out and gave an assessment of other technologies that could satisfy the demand of consumers and small businesses:

  • Optical fibre to the home: Expensive and not economic in the short term.

  • Leased lines: Retail prices relatively high compared to the copper loop.

  • Cable Modems: Cable networks now pass 50% of homes.

  • Higher Bandwidth Radio: Frequency allocation required but access to customers can be good. Next generation mobile system has potential to offer 2Mb/s bandwidth.

  • Power lines: New technology offering higher bandwidth over the electricity distribution network, but not technically proven.

  • Satellite: High bandwidth downstream, return path now being established through the standard telephone network.

Mr Taylor maintained that, with leased lines expensive for the consumer and small business and the other technologies still not being exploited on a large scale, "the emergence of DSL significantly changes the debate because it can be rolled out in the near term and in a ubiquitous way."

Oftel has suggested five possible options for allowing other operators access to the local loop and is asking for comments from interested parties by March 10. Based on the reaction, it could decide to regulate in order to foster a market for DSL.

Users crave faster, richer Internet

For users such as Professor Stephen Heppell, director of the Ultralab learning technology research centre, faster access with richer multimedia cannot come soon enough.

Stephen Heppell of Ultralab on the broadband need
"We need all the bandwidth we can muster in both directions," he told the Unbundling conference.

"Decent bandwidth can make us cyber athletes. Children use the Internet with enormous creativity and are evolving their media capabilities all the time.

"It should be an entitlement to be able to use all the multimedia types on the Net and schoolchildren will run to whatever gives the most and lets people have a parity of contribution . Children are hungry to make that contribution."

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