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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 December 2007, 09:04 GMT
Why do we need faster broadband?
By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

Supercomputer


A lot of what has been written about broadband has focused on obsession with speed.

But for most consumers the size of the pipe or the bandwidth it carries is of little importance as long as they can get done all the things they need to get done.

Without the obvious need for more bandwidth it is hard for companies such as BT to justify committing to a multi-billion spend on new networks.

Yet for the services to happen the capacity needs to be there. This chicken and egg dilemma is perhaps the biggest facing the industry as it considers its next move in the broadband sphere.

Ofcom has been proactive in the debate and is currently in the middle of a consultation on the issue but even it admits there is no obvious killer app.

"We are struggling to see new commercial applications. The same old applications are popping up that did when broadband was being talked about- such as video-conferencing and telemedicine," said Clive Carter, principal of strategy and market developments at Ofcom.

Video networking

A seal
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Most pundits agree that a new age is dawning where using your broadband connection for a bit of web surfing and sending the odd e-mail has ended in favour of video-dominated applications

Services such as YouTube have proved that consumers want to watch video online and this has gathered pace with offering such as the BBC iPlayer and Channel 4's catch-up service allowing viewers to access on-demand TV.

According to Nielsen Online, some 21 million Britons (63% of those online) visited TV, video and movies sites in September 2007, which is a rise of 28% from the same time last year with the time they spent on these sites up 91%.

"Britons are displaying an increasingly significant appetite for supplementing their viewing habits online," said Nielsen Online analyst Alex Burmeister.

"Whether it's additional content related to a particular TV programme or actually watching episodes or videos through their computer, we are starting to see a significant spread of entertainment consumption form the so-called lean back method of a TV to the lean forward method of the PC," he said.

In a 100Mbps world, pundits expect that the social networking sites that are currently proving so popular with users and virtual worlds such as Second Life will have HD 2-way video conferencing included as standard.

Downloading increase

Man yawning
Is there evidence of pent-up demand for faster services?

But in today's world there is no real evidence of pent-up demand for more bandwidth.

"No-one is screaming for 50Mbps now aside from a few geeks who won't really do anything useful with it but at the same time it is remarkable people's ability to use capacity," said Tim Johnson, chief analyst at broadband research firm Point Topic.

For many the case for fast networks is one of "build it and they will come".

UK internet service provider PlusNet has noticed a marked increase in the amount of downloading its users are doing - up to 6.4 gigabytes per month from 5 gigabytes this time last year.

When it upgraded customers to a 8Mbps connection - which is the service 70% of its users now have - it saw a 25% increase in usage.

"Every time we've seen an increase in speed, applications have come along to swallow it up," said Neil Armstrong, product director at PlusNet.

Some of the answers to how consumers will may use future capacity lie in what others are already doing with it. South Korea is often held up as the most technically advanced nation in the world when it comes to broadband. Households in the cities enjoy between 50Mbps and 100Mbps on average.

Much of the demand for bandwidth in South Korea comes from gamers, where video games seem to be a national pastime. It is not just bandwidth that gamers need, it is speed of response, or latency but as a general rule the faster the download speeds, the faster the upload speeds and that is a must for online gaming.

In the UK the gaming market is also growing and for some, such as professional gamer Michael O'Dell, there is a belief that gaming is about to go mass market.

According to a survey conducted by Broadbandchoices.co.uk, nearly half of the online population (48%) play online games. Despite this only 19% said they wanted high definition gaming services from next-generation broadband.

But for Mr O'Dell, who heads up Team Dignitas - a group of professional gamers competing for some serious prize-money - super-fast broadband speed is not a luxury but a necessity if his team wants to compete on the global stage.

Gamer using a game controller
Swedish gamers enjoy speeds of up to 100Mbps as standard
In South Korea, 43% of the population has a presence in the online gaming world
19% of Brits say they play online games

Most of his players languish on 2Mbps connections and some are of poor quality making it harder for them to practice.

"It is difficult for people to play competitively online due to their connections. It is well-known in the gaming world that the Swedes have the best connections in Europe, with many getting a 100Mbps for 14 a month. No-one in the UK can get that," he said.

It is in great contrast to the public gaming tournaments they attend, such as the recent i32 event hosted at Newbury racecourse, where speeds of up to 100Mbps are easily attainable thanks to the use of so-called local area networks.

At these LAN parties, conditions for gaming are perfect, said Mr O'Dell.

"We have a super high-speed network which allows up to a thousand people to play without any performance issues. That is the ideal situation," he said.

While gaming is likely to play a role in hoovering up next-generation capacity, few think it will be the killer application for the mass market.

It seems likely that the real bandwidth basher will come from a service yet to be thought of and one that may only come about when the extra capacity is there to serve it.



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