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 Friday, 27 December, 2002, 08:44 GMT
Britain catches the broadband bug
Map of UK with cables superimposed
Broadband finally caught on in 2002

Industry watchers have spent the past 12 months wondering if 2002 would finally be the year of Broadband Britain.

It seems the answer might be a tentative yes, after 12 months of rapid uptake of the technology, price cuts and big announcements from providers and government.

This is in sharp contrast to 2001, which was definitely a forgotten year as far as broadband in the UK was concerned.

It failed to live up to its promises and left a legacy for Britain as the slow man of Europe when it came to fast internet access.

Even with the future looking rosier, that legacy might prove hard to throw off and is likely to put the government's ambitious target to be the best in the world for broadband by 2005 in jeopardy.

People power

On the positive side over a million homes and businesses now have a broadband connection, either via ADSL or cable.

Even people that had thought themselves cut off from the broadband revolution - those in towns and villages not reached by either technology - have reason to be more optimistic. BT aims to connect up to 90% of the population by 2005.

Village scene in Norfolk
Some remote areas finally became wired
People power played a key part in persuading BT to extend ADSL - broadband via the telephone line - to beyond the 66% of UK homes it currently reaches.

Local broadband pressure groups led the company to set up a registration scheme for people keen to cross the digital divide.

It proved extremely popular. So far over 200,000 people have signed up and 21 local telephone exchanges have been earmarked for an upgrade soon.

BT has borne the brunt of the criticism for the slow start Britain made to the high-speed net access revolution.

But it is also true that its decision in February to reduce the wholesale costs of ADSL played a major part in the subsequent take-up.

The fall in the monthly cost of a broadband connection to between 20 and 30 helped to tempt many.

Dragon campaign

2002 was definitely the year BT decided to sit up and take notice of broadband.

Three-headed animated dragon
BT launched a 33m advertising campaign
Now it is difficult to turn on the TV without seeing a three-headed dragon singing the praises of broadband.

Love it or hate it, the 33m ad campaign is playing a part in embedding fast net access in the public consciousness.

It has even launched a controversial new way of getting broadband access which cuts out the need for an internet service provider and offers consumers direct broadband payable on their monthly BT bill.

Internet companies are understandably concerned that it has been allowed to do so.

Despite perceptions that BT dominates the industry, cable operators NTL and Telewest currently have the lion's share of the market with 60% to ADSL's 40%

By the end of the year, the government had reaffirmed its commitment to broadband by pledging to connect every school, university and doctor's surgery to the technology by 2006.

Challenges ahead

The big challenge ahead for the industry seems to be what is called content - be it music, video or other material online.

While more people are getting broadband, there is still a significant proportion who are not looking to upgrade to a fast connection.

The sexiest things that can be done with the technology, such as downloading music and video files, is often illegal and legitimate content is scarce.

Napster website with CD in foreground
Music downloads are often illegal
The next 12 months should be about sorting out how content providers will respond to the net and making it easy for consumers to pay for content online.

There needs to be a continued campaign to persuade people that having broadband could and should be a part of daily life.

With early broadband adopters such as Korea and Japan already offering citizens up to 20Mbps (megabits per second) speed connections, there is a lot to be done to make sure that broadband is truly fast internet.

Already many European countries are offering higher bandwidths of between two and eight megabits per second, so expect UK providers to follow suit next year.

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