Network: Wanted: an Internet without speed limits

Even with the fastest modem, accessing Web pages often involves a lengthy wait. Yet the technology to speed up the information superhighway is in use in the US. In Britain, you will have to be patient. Cliff Joseph reports.

This time last year we were all eagerly waiting for the new generation of 56K modems to arrive. We were looking forward to faster Internet access and fewer of those thumb-twiddling waits while we downloaded adverts that we didn't want to see in the first place. But 56K modems have proved to be something of a disappointment. They are faster than the earlier 33.6K and 28.8K models, but the speed difference isn't really great enough to change the way people use the Internet.

Current modem technology, which is based on Pots (plain old telephone service), seems to have reached the end of the line. If the Net is going to become a true mass medium it needs a new technology that provides much faster access.

There are a number of competing systems undergoing trials both here and in the US. Unfortunately, progress in the UK seems to be slow. The three main competitors at the moment are ISDN, cable and ADSL.

ISDN (integrated services digital network) isn't new at all, and has been in use for several years in the US and Europe. When you have ISDN installed, you get two new digital telephone lines that can each provide a connection speed of 64K per second. That is just under twice the speed of a standard 33.6K modem. But when you connect to the Internet you can use both lines together, for a combined speed of 128K per second. You also have the option of using one line for the Internet while simultaneously using the other line for normal calls.

"That's more than adequate for high-speed Internet access," says BT's Simon Gordon. That may be true, but the problem with ISDN is that it is very expensive. BT charges pounds 230 to have the lines installed. Line rental is at least pounds 150 a quarter, with call charges added on to that, although the line rental does include a certain amount of free call time. These high charges put ISDN out of the reach of ordinary Internet users. ISDN is primarily used by companies that need high-speed data links to their clients or between offices. BT is about to start a trial with a mass-market ISDN service that it calls Home Highway, but it hasn't decided on pricing for the service.

Meanwhile, in the US, most of the focus is now on cable and ADSL, both of which are significantly faster than ISDN.

"We're backing both technologies," says Mike Valiant of 3Com, one of the world's biggest modem manufacturers. "But it will be interesting to see how things develop in the UK."

Cable connections can handle data transfer rates of 27-34 megabits per second, but the speeds you get in practice will be much lower. Cable systems link groups of users together into "channels" consisting of up to 500 separate households, so you have to share your connection with others on your channel. Even so, you should be able to reach speeds of 2Mbps, even at peak times.

Unfortunately, you can't subscribe to cable tomorrow and get a 2Mbps Internet connection straight away. Cable companies have to upgrade their exchanges to provide this service, and British companies have been slow to do this. 3Com already sells cable modems in the US, "but the stage we're at in the UK is just talking to cable companies", Valiant says. "We hope to see services in mid-'98."

The other problem with cable is that not many people use it. Most of the world still uses old-fashioned Pots telephone lines. Any new modem technology that hopes to achieve mass-market success needs to work with those telephone lines. That is where ADSL comes in.

ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) is just one version of a technology that is generally referred to as DSL, but most of the development work in this area is concentrating on this version. It is available from a number of regional telephone companies and Internet service providers in Canada and the US. Next month, both Microsoft and Intel are expected to announce their support for ADSL.

ADSL modems can provide similar download speeds to cable modems, but they work with standard copper telephone lines. They achieve higher speeds by sending data along frequency bands that can't be used by ordinary modems. The "asymmetric" feature of ADSL refers to the fact that upload speeds - sending data from the user back to the Internet - are slower than downloads. Even so, the upload speed is still about 200Kbps.

The odd thing about ADSL is that its speed depends on your distance from the local telephone exchange. Peak speeds, within a few hundred feet of the exchange, can be as high as 9Mbps, but the average speed for most users will be 1.5-2Mbps.

BT has been conducting trials with ADSL since 1994, and says that it can sustain download speeds of 2Mbps at up to four kilometres from the exchange. That distance covers more than 70 per cent of BT users, so it has mass-market potential. But if BT has been testing ADSL since 1994, you might well wonder why it is available in Canada and the US, but not here in the UK.

Another ADSL trial is about to start in west London, but the main problems now are financial rather than technical. "BT has done numerous trials," argues 3Com's Valiant. "They know the technology works - they're just not sure how to pay for it."

Like many other telecoms companies, BT initially saw ADSL as a way of delivering video on demand to people's televisions, rather than using it to connect their computers to the Internet. However, while companies in the United States and Canada are focusing their ADSL efforts on the Internet, BT is still concentrating on video on demand and other services.

"We don't see ADSL replacing ISDN," says BT's Simon Gordon. "The main application will be interactive services such as banking or shopping. You're not going to use it for the Internet alone."

However, Valiant believes video on demand will not provide BT with the money it needs to upgrade its exchanges to provide ADSL. That leaves ADSL in a kind of marketing limbo while BT decides how to go about selling it. Given that BT has yet to set a price scheme for its mass-market ISDN service, you should not hold out much hope for ADSL in the near future.

Internet companies such as the London-based Direct Connection agree that BT is slow to adopt these new technologies. "I would like to see them moving more quickly," says Ben Knox, director of Direct Connection. He acknowledges that ISDN is well-tried and reliable, but suggests that BT could provide ADSL as a premium option for those users that want it.

Knox and Valiant agree that ISDN could be a useful interim solution until ADSL is introduced. It is disappointing, though, to think that promising technologies such as ADSL are being held back not because of technical difficulties, but simply because British telecommunications companies cannot figure out what to do with them.

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform