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Friday, 30 August, 2002, 10:47 GMT 11:47 UK
Riding the internet's fast lane
Broadband can change the way we use the internet, but it needs to made available to all, argues technology consultant Bill Thompson.
Just as a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife , so anyone with a regular internet habit must find themselves in urgent need of a broadband connection.

This is not because broadband is especially fast, since the basic service is only five or six times faster than a dialup connection, while the limiting factor for many websites is often the capacity of the server not the data transfer speed.

Nor is it because it's more convenient and does not tie up your phone line. Anyone who uses the net regularly over a dialup connection will have a second line by now anyway.

Internal modem
Maybe it's time to throw out your dialup modem
No, the real difference broadband makes is that it is always on. Whenever your computer is running, then your internet connection is active.

It checks your e-mail every five minutes, tells you when your friends log on to chat programs and lets you start long downloads of Windows Updates or unreleased movies and get on with your life while they chug away in the background.

With an always-on connection the net becomes part of everyday life. Instead of sitting down especially to get online, you just accept that it's there.

If you need a phone number then Google will get you the website of the business you want to call faster than thumbing through Yellow Pages. Checking the opening times of a shop or a swimming pool is just as easy.

And if your friends are on holiday in California then you can see what the weather is like and even watch their boat trip to Alcatraz on a web camera pointing at the Bay.

You can certainly do all of this over a dialup link. But you probably won't, because it takes time to click on connect, wait for the call to be put through, establish your connection and then launch your browser or e-mail program.

With broadband, the net is just there, one information resource among many.

Out of reach

I have had a cable modem from ntl for 18 months now and I really like it. It has been fairly reliable lately, although my girlfriend's connection is always falling over, perhaps because ntl just does not have the money to maintain its network properly as it sorts out its finances.

Yet more and more of the websites we like to use will only really be usable by people with broadband-level connections

Unfortunately many people in the UK - around 34% according to the latest official figures - cannot get a broadband connection, not even an unreliable one.

Either they live somewhere that does not have a cable network to plug into with a cable modem, or, more likely, BT has not yet got round to installing the necessary equipment to support ADSL at their local exchange.

This does not just affect people at home. Schools, doctor's surgeries, health centres and many small businesses are faced with the choice of sticking with their dialup access, signing up for the old-style ISDN service from BT or paying large amounts for a dedicated leased line connection.

Yet more and more of the websites we like to use, and many of the planned online government services, will only really be usable by people with broadband-level connections.

This is a problem for content providers of all types, from media companies who would like to stream video or provide multimedia adverts through to government departments who want us to do the theory part of the driving test online.

Glimmer of light

The situation has arisen because back in the 1990's the governments of the day - both Conservative and Labour - failed to realise just how vital internet infrastructure was going to be to this country, both for the economy and for day-to-day life.

As a result they tried to leave the development of high-speed access to the free market, with the regulator, Oftel, ensuring competition.

Mass of computer cables
Many people are confused by broadband
Sadly, Oftel saw its job largely as restraining BT, while the promised competition was so badly managed that both UK cable companies are now massively in debt and effectively worthless.

BT used Oftel's restrictions as an excuse to reduce investment and focus on milking old technologies, like ISDN, and old markets. And the government let it happen.

Now there is at least a glimmer of light. The Office of Government Computing has started trying to use its massive purchasing power to persuade the telecoms companies to make broadband more widely available.

The idea is that if the schools, surgeries and government offices in an area all say they will connect, then this would persuade BT to install ADSL kit locally.

It's a good idea, and one that should work. However it is deeply depressing that it has taken the new Labour government five years to get round to doing something so obvious. Still, perhaps we should be grateful for any progress at all.

One last point

I have to end with a whinge - as a technical pedant, I'm annoyed at the use of the word broadband for what is really just a moderately fast, always on connection, but I can live with it.

In fact broadband is a technical term for a physical network that can transmit data at several different frequencies at the same time, so you can send internet traffic, TV, voice and all sorts of other stuff down it.

It does not mean fast, but when the marketing droids at the telecoms companies were looking for a word to describe alternatives to dialup connection, it was the unlucky victim and is now a ruined word.

I think this is a shame, and wish we had a better word for a fairly fast, always-on connection. Any suggestions?

Read your comments on Bill's article:

What are your thoughts on satellite broadband and will it help the 34% of Britons in an area without broadband?
Mick Bell, UK

I think that it is time that the the likes of BT started to connect more smaller villages, please.
Matt Bradley , England

I find current ISP's too expensive so no chance for broadband for my household
Malc, UK

So, in reality, the only advantage of broadband is always-on connection. Many of us pay for a supposedly similar 24 hour dialup connections. Then we get punished by BT and others for abusing their Terms & Conditions. When they sell always-on dialup, they in fact do not either want or allow users to do that.
A Somerville, UK

A new name for broadband? Here's a couple - Permanet or Quicknet. Trouble is, they sound like brand names.
Roger Collings, UK

Another word for broadband? How about essential?
Rudi Honjo, UK

What is currently broadband was extraordinarily fast when it first became available. I think that after a while you become used to having that connection, and it becomes an average or slow connection. It's what happens with technology, like it happened with the speed of PCs. What's fast now will be slow tomorrow.
Hugh Jones, UK

On the subject of real names to replace the much-abused broadband, I think "permanet" might capture the ideal. Sadly it might open the purveyors up to a trade descriptions suit at the present standard of provision.
Daniel, UK

I'd always assumed the term broadband referred to the fact that faster data rates require high frequency switching, with the consequent broader bandwidth of harmonics associated.
Steve, UK

I love the fact that my dad has broadband, and I just leech through his connection via wireless networking! It's fantastic!
Paul Grimshaw, UK

I think wanting an always-on connection is a bit too far removed from reality. I take the point about availability changing habits, but that also means that content and navigation on some many sites are going to have to be massively improved. As one example, and taking Bill's point on the same issue, I recently tried to find the opening times of my local swimming pool on the web. It just wasn't there - not on the council site or any other tourist site. So I think it's content providers, not just connections, who have to really think about this.
Amanda Riley, UK

I have had broadband for four years now in California at just $40 per month. My whole family back home in the UK - mostly salaried professionals - are not even on dialup and if they do have access at work, can't see the movies I send them or even get in trouble for using the e-mail. I bank, shop, plan social events, communicate with all friends, read news, watch sports and movies, study and work online and have done for years. It frustrates me that England is so far behind on what will soon be like the phone or TV for being in touch with the world. John.
John Corbally, USA

I'm an internet consultant in the Cotswolds far from broadband. I'm annoyed that ISDN is being sidelined in the push for rural broadband. For rural users, ISDN can create a near-broadband experience. Most of the frustration of dialup is waiting for modems to connect. With ISDN, calls are connected within two or three seconds, hardly any wait at all. With ISDN line rental down to around 25 per month and unmetered 128k (around three times as fast as a modem) internet services starting at under 20 per month, I've not been too worried about broadband recently. As a side note, and my pet peeve, please don't let telecoms companies fool you into thinking that satellite is a useful alternative to cable or ADSL for rural users. Satellite internet connections have a four second delay on every single chunk of data transmitted so they actually seem slower than a modem for web browsing and online games.
Andrew Oakley, UK

I also am an ntl broadband user, recently upgraded to the 1Mb connection, (luckily I can afford it. I have a home network of four computers which is always online, all my banking, business and 99% of my non-verbal communication is done seven paces from my kitchen. my children learn and my wife shops. When technology critics tell me I am losing old values, I show them my beat up truck and trailer tent. The technology is always there for you but you don't have to rely on it to live or be sociable, but a fast always-on internet connection is a tool I could not do without now.
Steve Fenemore, UK

Looking through your last column on broadband, your last comment made me wonder. What could we call a fairly fast, always on connection? Easy, a dream. If a fast, always-on connection is ever realised and made available for the masses at a realistic price, will someone let me know?
Gary Finnigan, UK

I completely agree. While I am in an area where i could install broadband, the high-price of such a connection is prohibitive. In many other countries you could get a broadband connection for the price I pay for an unmetered 56K dialup one. We are lagging behind.
Lee Jones, England, UK

Current ADSL technology is fast enough for most purposes. Anyway, it's early days, and the technology will undoubtedly improve, or be replaced by something faster. If BT had been allowed to compete with the cable companies to deliver television services, we'd all have fibre-optic connections by now, with at least a 10 fold speed advantage over ADSL.
Stephen Elton, UK

The UK Government should ensure broadband is quickly implemented across the UK. The lack of such policy is negatively impacting on business and the environment, particularly in more rural areas where there are almost no exchanges ADSL enabled. Always-on connections allow more work to be done from home thereby reducing the number of journeys, congestion and pollution for all. More working from home also improves quality of life at home reducing stress and time wasted when travelling. For all the above reasons and more it is disgraceful that our rural exchanges continue to be so neglected. The government seem to have lacked foresight on this matter. We need policy to ensure we get all UK exchanges upgraded in an even handed manner as soon as possible.
John Cooper, UK

BT are about to spend a huge sum of money advertising broadband - trying to get people to use it now. If they instead spent this money upgrading as many exchanges as they can. Once ADSL is available, it will be used - the take up may be slightly slower with less advertising, but word of mouth is the way most people hear of ADSL/broadband. Once people know someone who has it, then they are almost guaranteed to get it themselves. So come on BT - spend the money in the right places -the exchanges - and let the customers pile in - because they will.
James Hughes, UK

Always-on ADSL connection may be marginally more convenient than dial-up but isn't there an increase in vulnerability to hacker and virus attack, simply because sustained attacks even when the PC is unattended become possible? Dialup connections intrinsically limit the time available to people wishing to invade a PC. Shouldn't ADSL be discussed in conjunction with consequent necessary firewall protection?
Nick Holdsworth, UK

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Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.

The Bill Thompson column is courtesy of BBC WebWise, part of BBC Education's ongoing campaign to teach people about the internet and how to use it. Bill is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital
Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology

See also:

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