Charles Arthur On Technology

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The Independent Online

Here's an interesting prediction: by early summer, half of the people connected to the internet will do so via broadband.

Here's an interesting prediction: by early summer, half of the people connected to the internet will do so via broadband. That's an estimate based on figures produced last month by the Office for National Statistics, which showed a gradual but solid uptake of broadband, with between 1 and 2 per cent of people converting from dial-up to broadband each month. And as 37.7 per cent were using broadband by November 2004, well, the maths show that in July or August, depending on whether take-up is 1 or 2 per cent, we'll hit 50 per cent.

This is great news; broadband means, apart from anything else, that people will be able to talk on the phone more easily in the evenings, because the phone won't be tied up downloading spam. Parents rejoice!

What is more, last week, BT (still the UK's biggest broadband provider) announced that it will be doubling the speed of connections for no extra cost. Surfers rejoice! (But why wasn't BT providing those faster speeds already, if it was feasible?)

However, getting broadband installed isn't the end of it. For some, it can just be the start of problems that can mystify them (why can't the computer get online? Is it my fault or the network's?) and maddening support calls, some charged at premium rates. So, if you're considering getting broadband, how do you decide which operator to go with? First, decide what your requirements are. How many computers will be online at once? More than one means that you'll need a faster line, and that you're probably going to be downloading more than 1Gbyte of data per month. You might exceed the 1GB cap beyond which many providers charge extra, even if you only have one computer, if you're using it to view a lot of online films of TV programmes, or using file-sharing networks. Around half of broadband users download more than 1GB per month.

If you're thinking of shifting over, it is thus worth spending some time on, which has news, forums and comparisons for quality of service, speed, and reliability. The comparison page gives some interesting results (although it will only let you compare six services at a time). In my tests, I found that Freedom2Surf's service had been rated most highly, although I had been pointed to it by another broadband ISP, PlusNet (which comes out above average, just not as far above as Freedom2Surf). I should point out that I have no direct experience of Freedom2Surf's service. PlusNet's point is that the records of bigger or better-known providers such as AOL, BT Yahoo! and Virgin are not as good as those of smaller ones - an interesting point that ADSLguide's data seems to bear out; the companies with the highest ratings are often the ones of which you've never heard.

But even after you have chosen a broadband provider with great download speeds, faultless service and top reliability, there are still a few stumbling-blocks along the way - and one, "contention", will get worse as more people broadband.

Here's how contention works. Your line to the local exchange, which is where the really hefty bandwidth is available, will usually get bundled together with the other lines in your street; in effect, only one big line goes from your street to the exchange. That limits the bandwidth that can come from the exchange to your home, because if everyone else in the street also has broadband (whether or not it's from the same provider; only that it comes from the same kit on the exchange), you all have to share what's coming from the exchange. True, you'll all be able to work at the same time, just as you can already download e-mail while you surf and do instant messaging - because your internet connection works by sending and receiving data "packets", and you can interweave them - but if 20 neighbours are watching internet TV, you'll notice the slowdown. So, as engineers would say, you'll all be in contention for the same bandwidth.