Life in the fast lane

Millions of us have signed up to high-speed web access. But do we really know what we're getting?

Are you thinking of joining the almost four million people in the UK currently accessing the internet at home via broadband connections? Fabulous - welcome to the world of fast access, no restrictions, always-on internet access, one which 3.99 million people already inhabit, and which 4,000 people are joining every week, according to the latest figures from the communications regulator Ofcom (the Office of Communications).

Are you thinking of joining the almost four million people in the UK currently accessing the internet at home via broadband connections? Fabulous - welcome to the world of fast access, no restrictions, always-on internet access, one which 3.99 million people already inhabit, and which 4,000 people are joining every week, according to the latest figures from the communications regulator Ofcom (the Office of Communications).

Judging by the ads, it's a world full of streaming video, radio stations piped from anywhere in the world, videoconferences with Auntie Annie in Australia, home-made videos of the family sent without a second thought, endless access to entertainment, and all with your ordinary telephone line free at the same time.

Or maybe not. Whether you get unlimited access to all these things - or indeed access to them at all - and quite how fast your internet connection is, turns out to be among the choices you make at the time of purchase. "Broadband" is a word that lacks a hard and fast definition - and not all broadband subscribers get the same service. Quite the contrary. "Broadband" as a term encapsulates a variety of services, and it is up to you to choose the one appropriate to your needs. The only thing that seems to connect them all is that it's always on, and doesn't need the tedium of dialling into a number.

One of the most basic questions you are likely to want to ask a potential broadband provider is: "What speed will my connection be?" According to Ofcom, which took over telecoms regulation in January, broadband encapsulates anything from 128 kilobits per second (kbps) upwards. Normal dial-up lines are quoted as 56kbps - though in reality the best throughput you'll ever get is actually around 48kbps.

But quoted broadband speeds are the maximum potential speed at which data is downloaded to your computer; actual speeds are likely to be slower, and upload speeds, such as when you send e-mails, are usually considerably slower. The 128kbps figure is in practice about three times faster than you'll get with the fastest "dial-up" connection. That might not sound like "blazingly fast", but it's here to stay as the minimum working definition.

That's because it's been used for some time as the minimum speed in the production of statistics on broadband take-up; removing it now would skew those statistics. Most broadband ISPs' slowest speeds these days is 150kbps - though many feel even that is too slow to merit being called broadband, as it is not fast enough for good quality video streaming.

Bulldog, which offers broadband services in London, the South East and several large cities, is not convinced that lower speeds fall within the definition. Richards Greco, its chief executive, says: "Broadband is often affiliated with the term 'information superhighway', but classifying 150kbps as broadband is like encouraging people to buy a bicycle for a motorway; 250kbps is today's lowest practical broadband speed, and that will rise."

The Consumers' Association also has its doubts about the lower speeds Ofcom is prepared to define as broadband, and sets its suggested minimum higher still. Alan Williams, the association's senior communications policy adviser, says: "We think broadband should be at least 512kbps."

On the other hand, Tiscali, a company that sells a range of broadband services, is convinced that the slower, lower-cost products are driving broadband subscriptions forward. Steve Horley, its general manager for access and voice, says: "Early adopters of broadband wanted fast access, but now this isn't always the case. People are coming to broadband because they like the idea of having access to the phone for voice calls while they are online, for a similar price to that they would pay for dial-up. Speed matters less to them. When the price difference between broadband and dial-up becomes negligible, people will take it."

Horley accepts that ISPs have a duty to explain to customers what they are getting - and not getting - for their money. To that end, Tiscali has a table at its web site that compares the various products on offer.

The broadband blues aren't over when you've decided what data speed is appropriate to your needs. To try to encourage the market to grow, other innovations have started to appear. These include capped download services, time-limited services, and variable speed services. Capped download services limit the amount of data you are allowed to download within a set period. Exceed it, and you will be surcharged. Time-limited services have another type of restriction: Tiscali's "Broadbandx10, 50 hours" offers 50 hours of connected time a month at 512kbps for £19.95. Stay online for longer and you pay 2p a minute.

Variable speed services are relatively rare. Bulldog's "PrimeTime 500" costs £17.99 a month, and has a 2GB monthly download cap (exceeding it costs £5). It is 512kbps between 6pm and 8am on weekdays, all day on weekends and public holidays, and 256kbps at other times. The service is designed to appeal to people who are primarily out at work during the day, and allows Bulldog to maximise the use of high-speed links to businesses.

Doesn't all this make it confusing to choose between products? The Consumers' Association thinks so. In a written submission to a Department of Trade and Industry Committee on broadband last year it pointed this out, and Williams notes: "We welcome steps to improve information to customers, including a clear definition of what is broadband and what performance consumers can expect."

An Ofcom spokesperson said: "It is important that consumers are able to make informed decisions and can take advantage of competition and a wide choice of services." Ofcom estimates that 15 per cent of UK homes currently have a broadband connection. "This suggests a significant proportion of the population are able to make decisions about getting a broadband connection," says Ofcom. Yet this may miss the key point: yes, we can decide to get broadband, but it doesn't mean that we make the most appropriate selection.

Where does this leave anyone considering buying broadband for the first time? First, decide what you want broadband for. Just e-mail? A slower connection will probably be fine. For streaming video, lots of downloading or video-conferencing, consider 256kbps as a minimum. But make your choice carefully: you will almost certainly pay for a year in advance and, once you have broadband, a whole new world of possibilities opens up. Oh, and avoid caps, time constraints and other services that incur surcharges, unless you are sure you won't overstep the limits.

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