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Friday, 29 November, 2002, 10:37 GMT
What is broadband for?
Bill Thompson, BBC
Your perception of broadband depends very much on what you are using it for argues technology consultant Bill Thompson

If you ask the advertising team at BT, NTL or Telewest what broadband is for then they will tell you it is about a fast connection that is always on.

As far as I am concerned, the main benefit I get from my cable modem is that my computers are connected to the net all the time they are switched on.

It seems that speed is the only thing that the people responsible for selling broadband can think of as a reason for getting it.

BT's current advertising campaign, complete with celebrities and cartoon monsters, is all about how much you can get down the broadband pipe. The cable companies are similarly obsessed with bits per second.

Radical view

They have taken the radical approach of watching how families use their home broadband connections and listening to what they say about their use of the internet

Bill Thompson
My link often is fast. In the morning I get data at 668.9 kilobits per second, which is much better than an ordinary modem will ever give.

But come this evening and it may be a fifth of that, as everyone else in the area starts using their machines.

If I relied on having a fast connection instead of just finding it useful when it is, there then I would often be disappointed.

There must be more to it than speed, even for technically-proficient users like me.

Now research from the iSociety team at economic think-tank the Work Foundation has given us an insight into what people really think about broadband.

They have taken the radical approach of watching how families use their home broadband connections.

They have listened to what they say about their use of the internet, instead of assuming that the experiences and desires of the small group of computer experts, journalists and new media workers who made up the first wave of UK broadband users are typical of the whole population.

The results are interesting, and challenge the way that broadband has been presented so far.

In particular, they have pointed out something that many of us have been saying for a couple of years now.

It is time to stop treating the internet as if it was totally separate from the real world and accept that its importance comes from ways it is embedded in everyday life, because real people do not see the net as special.

Using bandwidth

Hand holding cables
ISPs could charge for bandwidth
The big shock for the advertisers is that people do not notice the speed of their broadband connection and that speed is not the main benefit they see from it.

Not only that, but most people don't keep their computers switched on all the time, so the always on aspect is actually pretty irrelevant too. If you have got to turn on your PC and wait for Windows to start then the extra time needed to dial-up is pretty insignificant.

Given that the suppliers want to turn the existing one million broadband subscribers into five million in the next year, this is a bit of a problem. The thing they are promoting is not actually what people want.

However it is possibly not quite as simple as it seems. For one thing, although people might not think much about the speed of their connection, they do use the bandwidth.

Listening to the radio while you're surfing the web, doing several different things online at the same time, and online gaming are all heavy users of the available bits per second.

It may well be that non-technical users just do not realise how much speed they now want from their link. Certainly, taking a broadband user and forcing them to connect at dial-up speeds would provoke howls of rage very quickly.

Cost factor

One thing that does come out very strongly is that even if the connection is not always there, because computers are turned off between sessions, people do feel differently about broadband because it is always on and the cost is fixed.

Not having to make a connection every time they want to check e-mail or look up a website, and not having to worry about the connection dropping seems to change people's attitude.

Computer keyboard
People are more relaxed about being online
They are more relaxed about using the net and will even interrupt what they are doing online to go and deal with other tasks like the ironing or making meals.

What we find is a more complicated picture than the one presented in the technology pages and adverts, where people who do not care very much for computers or the internet are using the network in their daily lives.

They are doing this in ways which they value rather than just doing what the providers expect them to do.

This raises one serious issue. The research shows clearly that the comfort factor of broadband comes from not having to worry about cost, reliability or being knocked off the net in the middle of something.

Yet internet service providers are considering putting limits on broadband use and even charging for data transfers above a certain monthly limit.

Introducing this sort of uncertainty could easily destroy the fragile belief in broadband as the safe way to get online and quickly halt the growth in broadband take-up.

It would be unfortunate if the lack of preparedness for how people really use the net, combined with corporate greed, sabotaged broadband in the same way that unmetered dial-up was damaged by the actions of some companies two years ago.

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Bill Thompson 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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