Broadband: The first decade

The internet went high-speed 10 years ago, changing the way we live, work, shop and play – for both better and worse

Kate Youde
Sunday 28 March 2010 02:00 BST

It has revolutionised the way we live, allowing friends and families across the world to chat and share photos instantly, watch television programmes online and download films and albums at the touch of a button. Credited as one of the greatest aids to modern democracy and free speech, it is also vilified for creating a generation of couch potatoes and cyber-criminals.

Yet just 10 years ago, broadband internet as we know it did not exist. When Mark Bush became the first person in the UK to get it installed at home, he was just looking forward to staying online longer playing games. But now, like the vast majority of people in this country, the father of three from Basildon in Essex uses broadband internet as his "first port of call for anything".

Telewest launched home ADSL – asymmetric digital subscriber line, as it was known – in the UK on 31 March 2000, with Goldsmith Road in Gillingham, Kent, the first street to receive the technology after the trial at Mr Bush's home.

Read more: Compare providers and find the best deal for you with our Best Broadband Deals page

Domestic broadband enabled things deemed impossible on sluggish dial-up connections. It took a while for people to wake up to the technology, but then they stampeded: in 2002, there were fewer than 200,000 broadband users. Four years later, there were 13 million. Now there are closer to 20 million, accounting for two-thirds of all households.

But already we are demanding more: the spread of fibre optics is the latest stage in an ongoing revolution changing almost every aspect of our lives, from how we pay our bills to choosing our life partners.

Broadband's 10th anniversary on Wednesday will be marked by the Speed of Light art installation, featuring 148 lasers, on London's South Bank. Simon Dornan of Virgin Media, which took over Telewest in 2007 and commissioned the artwork, said the idea was to show the benefits of "something as visible as gas or electricity". "People think of fibre optic light and think of really naff Christmas trees," he said. "We thought we'd ask experts to see what they could do with bringing light to life."

Although the internet has benefited vast numbers of people worldwide, 15 million UK adults still do not use it. Last year's Digital Britain report found that, while 89 per cent of households can readily get broadband services of Mbps (megabits per second) or higher, technical difficulties mean that 2.75 million homes cannot. The Government has promised that there will be a universal service by 2012. It is also imposing a monthly 50p landline tax to bring the "next generation" of super-fast broadband to 90 per cent of the country by 2017.

Martin Campbell-Kelly, professor of computer science at Warwick University, said "interactive" broadband had had a greater impact than the "one-way broadcasting systems" of radio or television.

"I think that eventually most of the communication technologies that we use today will migrate to the internet," he added. He said broadband connection in the UK would become five times faster in the next 10 to 15 years, catching up with Hong Kong.

For Mr Bush and millions of others, the days before broadband are now a fading memory. "I used to play games online a lot and on the modem you couldn't stay on for too long because it was expensive," said the 46-year-old. "You had to wait until after 6pm when cheap-rate phone calls came in, and the connection was not always reliable. When I was looking forward to broadband I was really just thinking I will be able to stay on longer and the games will work better. I didn't have any kind of concept about how fully integrated it was going to be."

He now does 75 to 80 per cent of his shopping online, while the social networking site Facebook enables him to "connect with the kids on a similar level". Being able to work from home via broadband has also proved "invaluable" to the single parent. He estimates that about 80 per cent of his socialising in the past 10 years has been conducted on the net, largely because he has friends scattered around the world.

Broadband evolution

1991 Tim Berners-Lee invents the world wide web.

2000 Broadband launches in the UK, with Telewest offering cable broadband with maximum speeds of 512 kilobits per second.

2001 Only 9 per cent of UK households have broadband, compared with 39 per cent in Germany and 33 per cent in Sweden. Online encyclopedia Wikipedia launches and features 20,000 articles in 18 languages at the end of its first year. The free music-sharing site Napster, which had more than 26 million users worldwide, shuts after action by bands and record labels. It relaunched as a legal, paid-for service in 2004.

2002 Local loop unbundling begins and non-BT telecommunication companies start installing broadband kit in telephone exchanges.

2003 The Advertising Standards Authority defines "broadband" as having to deliver speeds of at least 500kbps. Virtual world Second Life opens. One megabit ADSL broadband is available to more than 60 per cent of the population.

2004 Apple launches the online iTunes music store in the UK. University students in America start using Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook.

2005 Two megabit broadband launches. Home videos go global with the launch of YouTube. Social networking becomes mainstream as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp buys MySpace.

2006 There are more than 100 million websites online, according to Netcraft. NTL merges with Telewest, giving the UK a single cable provider. Twitter launches and Facebook is opened to the public. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development starts using broadband penetration as one of its indicators of a nation's development.

2007 NTL becomes Virgin Media. Lost becomes the first TV show available on the UK iTunes store. The Queen broadcasts her Christmas message on YouTube. The BBC launches its catch-up service iPlayer. Radiohead releases their album In Rainbows as a digital download on a pay-what-you-want basis.

2008 Virgin Media introduces 50Mbps broadband in the UK. Atlantic Records announces it is the first major label to make more money from digital downloads than CD sales. Spotify launches in the UK, offering free access to millions of songs. Barack Obama's presidential campaign uses the web as a way to the White House. The Berlin Philharmonic launches the world's first digital concert hall.

2009 Fifty per cent of UK households are connected to broadband. One in seven 18- to 24-year-olds watch no live TV, choosing instead to watch video via the internet. TooWay uses satellite technology to launch a Mbps satellite broadband service. The actor Ashton Kutcher becomes the first person to amass a million followers on Twitter. Korean Communications Commission announces plans to take broadband speeds from 100Mbps to 1Gbps. France's highest court rules internet access is a basic human right. Digital Britain announces plans for a 50p tax on telephone lines to pay for taking broadband to inaccessible parts of the country. An anti-X Factor Facebook campaign gives Rage Against the Machine a Christmas Number One.

2010 Virgin Media unveils plans for 100Mbps broadband in the UK. Britons are able to plot the course of January's bad weather in real time thanks to the UK Snow Map, which overlays pictures and tweets containing information about snowfall in different areas on to a Google map.

Kate Youde

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