Charles Arthur: The Geek

Why faster broadband is going to change your life for eve
Click to follow
The Independent Online

So, how fast is your broadband connection? (Come on, surely you're on broadband; life on dial-up is only for those who've never tried a fast connection.) I ask because, unless you're on one of the few superfast connections, such as Be's 24-megabit system, then, some time over the next 12 months, you should see the speed of your connection go up from the standard 2 megabits per second (2mbps) to 8mbps.

Even folk like me, who live in rural areas that have managed to join the 20th century - the 21st may have to wait just for now - can already get 1Mb downloads. It transforms your web use: you can listen to online radio, you can view (small) videos with ease, and larger ones with a little patience, and the always-on connection takes all the delay and aggravation out of the experience, compared with using a modem.

But BT's improvements - to be trialled in 53 exchanges in Greater London, Cornwall, Strathclyde, Northern Ireland and South Glamorgan, and (if successful) rolled out nationwide - will change that dramatically. Not everyone will see 8Mb speeds, even if the system is rolled out across the country, but any improvement is always welcome. And for BT, and content providers, any increase in download speeds is very welcome. Why? Because it brings the days of internet TV - direct, choose-it-yourself TV over your phone line - closer. And that's going to change life radically for many people.

The reason is that, with 8-megabit broadband, you can do TV over the net; the compression algorithms used for digital broadcasts can easily put a single TV channel down a line, and still leave plenty of room for surfing the web at the same time. BT has wanted, since the 1990s, to offer broadcast services such as TV over its network, to compete better with the cable companies that have had a speed advantage over it for more than two decades. (NTL and Telewest aren't standing still, of course. They're getting ready to roll out 10Mb connections via their cable networks.)

"IP-TV" (sending TV over broadband) might sound futuristic, but it's already being used in the UK by HomeChoice, and as a successful business model in Hong Kong by phone company PCCW, which had seen its sales stagnate as smaller, nimbler rivals grabbed customers away - until providing a combination of IP-TV, broadband and a phone service revived it.

Programme-makers like IP-TV even more than cable because it's harder to pirate: rather than every channel going down the line to the customer, just one channel - the one being watched - does. Of course, IP-TV has its own piracy worries: what if people grab the digital stream and record and redistribute programmes via their high-speed connection? So far, PCCW seems to have avoided that.

IP-TV, theoretically, lets you choose from any number of channels, which start when you press the button. This will change the answer to the question, "What's on tonight?" - currently, we're usually limited to the channels we have, or what we have recorded.

The question of who is in charge also changes. Presently, it's the people who write the schedules for the TV channels, and the people who write the TV programmes. But with IP-TV, you're in charge. True, you can't make programmes appear; if it's all junk to you now, it'll still be junk then. But you choose the time, duration, and perhaps whether to skip adverts.

TV over broadband is coming, for sure, and will be nationwide. That is going to make a serious difference to people who subscribe to broadband. It's going to lead to a struggle between companies such as Sky (which wants to offer downloads direct to its Sky+ recording box) and BT, which wants the widest customer base, and content providers such as the BBC, which want the widest possible distribution of what they produce, so they can get the widest viewership.

In such a world, the arguments over the timing of the "digital switchover" from 2008 begin to look almost irrelevant, at least for those people with high-speed connections, even though that is presently still only about a quarter of the population.