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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 November, 2003, 08:59 GMT
Full speed ahead for Japan's broadband
By J Mark Lytle
In Tokyo, Japan

With BT set to launch its new 1Mbps Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) broadband net service on 20 November, it is worth taking a moment to consider just how broad the UK's band really is.

Yahoo! Japan's advertising board in Tokyo
Yahoo BB wa ikaga desu ka?
According to Bruce Stanford, BT Wholesale's product director, trials in October showed there was a "strong consumer demand" for the service, which is twice as fast as the company's current offering.

As statements go, that is rather like those surveys showing that most people feel undervalued at work, or that they would like to be having a little more sex than their current ration.

Blindingly obvious, in other words.

The more important issue is whether British internet users are being sold short.

After all, a speed boost of 512kbps is no great shakes, especially when you consider that you will be lucky to get half of that when network congestion and distance from the telephone exchange are factored in.

All in the bag

Here in Japan, ADSL is a firmly established technology, with the locally owned arm of Yahoo, called Yahoo BB, the market-leading net service provider.

This summer, Yahoo BB signed up its three millionth customer for services running at eight and 12Mbps.

This success was almost entirely down to the aggressive marketing masterminded by parent company Softbank's CEO Masayoshi Son.

For the last year, it has been nigh on impossible to take a stroll in the capital without being asked, "Yahoo BB wa ikaga desu ka? (How about Yahoo BB?)," by one of Mr Son's army of street salespeople ready to sign you up and send you on your way with an ADSL modem in a bag.

According to the IEEE, you could get over 50Mbps, theoretically, if your loop is less than one kilometre. In Japan, NTT has put a fibre feeder point within a kilometre of 80% of locations
Kirk Boodry, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein
Now, with the latest tranche of upgrades taking the maximum download speed to a blazing 26Mbps - remember, this is still over standard telephone lines, just like in the UK - one can be forgiven for wondering why BT and its competitors are languishing in the slow lane.

"The most important factor relates to network construction," says Kirk Boodry, director of capital markets at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein in Tokyo.

"In Japan, fibre has been pushed much deeper into the network and the copper loop lengths [from exchanges to individual homes] are much shorter.

"With DSL, the smaller the distance, the higher the bandwidth you can push through.

"According to the IEEE, you could get over 50Mbps, theoretically, if your loop is less than one kilometre.

"In Japan, NTT [the equivalent of BT] has put a fibre feeder point within a kilometre of 80% of locations."

Japanese surfers clearly have a good deal. Yahoo BB's 26Mbps package costs just 3,838 yen, or about 20 per month, which is around 10 cheaper than the new BT deal.

The Japanese package includes modem rental, the service provider fee, and a subscription to the company's IP (Internet Protocol) phone service, BBPhone, offering dirt-cheap phone calls.

For an extra 1,000 yen, there is a wireless LAN pack available. On top of all that, the whole caboodle is free for the first three months.

Another factor worth noting concerns the set-up procedure.

There is no taking an afternoon off work and waiting around for an engineer to do something mysterious with your phone socket.

With Yahoo BB, it is a simple plug-and-play affair. Connect the ADSL modem to your computer, run the supplied software (Windows, Mac or Linux) and that is it.

Line switching is handled remotely by NTT when you first apply for the service.

Geeks no more

We asked a few members of the public about their perceptions of internet use in Japan.

The overriding impression was that net access is no longer the domain of geeks it was five years ago.

Rather, it is seen as a utility like gas or water that is "simply there".

"I'm online for just few hours a day, mainly sending photos to clients, but fast internet access makes all the difference," explains Eriko Tohno, a freelance photographer working out of her Tokyo apartment.

"It used to take me far longer, as I tended to send discs by courier."

Yahoo! Japan's advertising board in Tokyo
The Japanese just have faster connections to look forward to

Or like one peer-to-peer fan who says, "I like to download movies and music from file-sharing networks, which is fast and simple these days.

"If I like them, I just go out and buy the CD or a cinema ticket."

So, it seems clear that speed - or the lack of it - as a restraining factor is but a dim memory, and rather it is what you can do that matters.

In terms of where this wired nation goes now, it is only full speed ahead, says Mr Boodry.

"There will be an increasing emphasis on fibre optic connections with higher bandwidth than DSL, but that seems like a 2004 to 2005 story to us."

If UK surfers are lucky, we might see an entrepreneur like Masayoshi Son do an Abramovich and inject a little life into the ADSL market, but do not hold your breath.

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