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Last Updated: Friday, 11 February, 2005, 11:42 GMT
When fast is just not fast enough
A fibre optic network would boost broadband
BT has announced it will double broadband speeds for customers. But Bill Thompson thinks fast is not fast enough.

We are probably supposed to be grateful to BT for announcing that it will follow the trend and double the effective speed of its broadband service.

The entry-level offering for its one-and-a-half million customers will now come in at 1Mbps, with a 2Mbps service also available.

The news follows hot on AOL's announcement that its broadband customers will get faster downloads, with the basic service going up to 512Kpbs and both one-megabit and two-megabit also available.

Even faster connections are available from some smaller suppliers, and improvements in network technology mean that we should all be able to get a four megabit link in a year or two.

If you live in Tokyo then Yahoo!BB will sell you a 50 Mbps link for around 20 a month.

It sounds great, but we should not let the marketing hype tell us what to think about the announcements, welcome though they are.

For a start, the advertised speeds are for downloading material from the net.

Upload speeds for sending stuff are a lot slower. If you want to send large image files to your grandparents or play your own part in the peer-to-peer revolution then you will quickly notice the difference.

More crucially, even these faster UK speeds are pathetically slow compared to many other countries.

If you live in Tokyo then Yahoo!BB will sell you a 50Mbps link for around 20 a month.

And in South Korea, where nearly a quarter of the population is on broadband, 10 or 20Mbps connections are common, and they expect most people to be on 100Mbps in the next five years.

I cannot see that happening over here unless BT, NTL and Telewest decide to rip out the entire telephone and cable system and replace it with something rather more modern and suited to the information age.

We can probably rule that out.

If this is broadband in Japan......

Being fast is not the only benefit of broadband, of course, so we should not just dismiss what is available to us.

For many people the real usefulness of broadband comes from the fact that it is an always-on connection - at least, on as long as your computer is turned on - rather than because it is faster than dial up.

That means your emails download in the background, chat services can see you are online all the time, and checking something out on your favourite search engine is a matter of launching a browser and not having to wait for a dial up connection to get going.

But having a fast connection helps too, and some net applications and uses are only really viable at high speeds. If you want to watch TV-quality images in real time on your PC screen, then you need at least 2Mbps.

Unfortunately, you need 2Mbps per screen, which is where the problems start.

A single home connection increasingly supports several computers, especially now that more and more of us have a PC and a games console, both talking to the internet.

....is this broadband in Britain?

A lot of people have installed wireless at home too.

At its peak there can be a desktop, three laptops and an Xbox sharing my creaking cable connection - and that is before any of us try streaming video so we can catch up on TV programmes we've missed.

It works fine when we are all sending and receiving e-mail or surfing the web, since the file sizes involved are typically small and the limiting factor on most sites is the speed of the server's own connection or network bottlenecks.

But once Lili is using her webcam, Max is fragging opponents in Halo 2 and I am trying to stream an obscure US pop station then we all notice the limits.

Going up to 4Mbps might help, but it will still be possible to use up all of the available bandwidth just doing "normal" stuff.

That would not happen at 100Mbps.

I realise that I am speaking as a member of a privileged minority here.

While accurate figures are hard to come by, the Internet World Stats website estimates 820 million users around the world, of whom around 10% are on DSL broadband.

So over five-and-a-half billion people are not yet online, and 700 million of those who are online aren't using broadband.

The poor state of UK broadband is clearly a minor issue when it comes to building the wired world.

Except that what happens here matters.

In Japan and South Korea they have invested in network infrastructure, built new networks to support the highest possible access speed and promoted connectivity through government action.

Over here we have an inadequate cable network, an old copper-based phone network and a government that is happy to accept a slow 256Kbps metered service as "broadband" because it helps it pretend that we are living in "Broadband Britain".

One of these models might be of some use to developing countries seeking a way to improve internet access for their populations.

We should be careful that we do not let our approach of making do with what we have got and getting by with slow connections have too much impact on the wider conversations about what sort of access speeds the world needs.

For me, if you can be bothered to measure it, it is not fast enough.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.



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