Although BT has announced the pricing of its consumer and business ADSL services, the full benefits of ADSL will not immediately be offered to businesses.
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High-bandwidth data links should allow businesses to exploit software outsourcing, videoconferencing and server-based computing, but all BT's ADSL users are initially being offered is Internet access speeds of 512Kbps and the ability to send data at 256Kbps. While the access speed is eight times faster than a single 64Kbps ISDN line, users will wonder why the ADSL model of up to 8Mbps for access and almost 1Mbps for sending data has been ignored. BT promised ADSL access speeds of between 1 and 2Mbps months ago but at this stage it's not clear who will be able to get this and what exactly it will cost.
And while BT has announced that ADSL pricing will start at £39.99 a month for consumers, it has given no further details about general wholesale prices for its competitors to resell. ISP Freeserve is initially reselling BT's ADSL services before selling its own when local loop unbundling takes place. Freeserve is charging the same £39.99 as BT, but is in the fortunate position of having two million customers. Smaller companies will not be able to offer such a low price. Some are expected to be forced out of the market because BT may charge them up to £150 per month for each user, which means they will only be able to make money by advertising services.
Users wanting to install ADSL may be tempted to wait until next year, when BT will be forced to open up its exchanges to competitors. This will allow BT's rivals to offer their own ADSL services direct to the customer, at perhaps higher speeds and cheaper prices.
Easynet, a subsidiary of cut-price airline Easyjet, is already reselling BT's business service, but more cheaply and supporting more users as standard. However, as with Freeserve, which is also offering BT's business service, it is not clear how many customers will be able to get access to it given that BT can't meet the demand for ADSL from its own business customers.
EasyDSL is initially available to order in Birmingham, Belfast, Cambridge, Cardiff, Coventry, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, London, Manchester, Milton Keynes and Newcastle. Other locations will be added on an ongoing basis, says the company.
BT is still making plenty of money out of ISDN, and as with leased lines, this revenue stream is cited by some as a reason for the company's failure to jump wholeheartedly into the ADSL market.
The fact that ISDN is now available across most of the UK should mean it will be around for many years to come. When it was launched, ISDN was mainly targeted at businesses for sending large data files. But the growth of the Internet has changed this, and ISDN is currently the only option in the UK for many users wanting to avoid the worldwide wait when trying to get online with a 56K modem, which rarely works that fast anyway.
The rush by ISPs to offer unmetered Internet access led to many users clogging up their provider's access system. Users' eagerness to get online and stay online made it slower for everyone to get connected in the first place. For the many users who had only a standard 56Kbps modem, the time it took to download anything from oversubscribed servers was an excruciating experience.
Some users chose the next best option to get access - ISDN - which gave BT's Highway service for either home or business an extra boost. With Highway, users can get Internet access at up to 128Kbps.
In the meantime, many of the ISPs with unmetered access services have withdrawn them or limited them to a fixed number of users. NTL, for instance, which is one of the biggest unmetered ISPs, has limited its service to around 100,000 customers. The waiting list to sign up is even bigger.
As far as ADSL is concerned, BT has promised to update its exchanges in stages to allow most users eventually to take advantage of ADSL, but there will still be a great deal of patchiness, with some users having slower speeds than others.
Factors that will affect the roll-out of ADSL include the time it takes to unbundle the local loop, the lack of ADSL equipment, a shortage of skilled engineers to update exchanges and visit homes and businesses, and possibly even a lack of ready cash if BT's recent results are taken into account and its current high borrowing.
At the moment, only the UK's largest cities are kitted out to offer ADSL. Someone in North Wales, for instance, won't see ADSL for up to two years. The nearest updated exchanges are in Liverpool and Manchester, which are too far away to allow users in Wales to link up to the service.
For those who do get on the ADSL ladder, networking company Black Box proffers its own roadmap for the DSL market. Black Box product manager Peter Brooke-Wavell says that while ADSL has been the focus of DSL in the UK so far, it will be HDSL (Higher Speed DSL) that will win over the business market.
With HDSL allowing data to be sent and received at around 2.3Mbps, and able to connect to exchanges over longer distances, Black Box predicts it will be the one to excite most businesses. Its symmetrical capabilities - the ability to send and receive data at the same speeds - will mean its sales will outstrip ADSL in the business market, believes Brooke-Wavell. "Using the correct kit, it will be possible to connect an entire telephone private branch exchange and get access to the Internet over a pair of wires originally laid to support a single phone," he says.
And VDSL (Very High Speed Digital Subscriber Line), which offers up to 53Mbps over shorter distances, is another one to watch. Ideal applications include video on demand.
Before HDSL and VDSL enter the market, though, BT has promised it will at least introduce SDSL (Symmetrical Digital Subscriber Line) services by the middle of next year. This will allow firms to send and receive data at the same 500Kbps, 1Mbps or 2Mbps speed, giving firms an alternative to expensive leased lines. BT, however, hasn't announced prices for this alternative, which will largely be resold by third-party telcos.
EasyNet's DSL business package offers access to the Internet at speeds of up to 512Kbp, a downstream data speed of 512Kbps, and an upstream data speed of 256Kbps.
The cost of EasyDSL is £79 a month, which cover up to 13 users/IP addresses. This compares with BT's current package of £99 for the same speed, which covers only four users/IP addresses. Freeserve charges £99.99 for its business service.
For higher connection speeds, EasyDSL users can pay £119 per month to enjoy speeds of 2Mbps downstream and 256Kbps upstream. The BT service for higher speeds is so far not widely available and pricing hasn't been finalised. It is expected to be more expected.
BT's ADSL vs ISDN
ADSL is 'always on' and unmetered, offering unlimited non-dial-up Internet access. Voice and fax calls are charged. ISDN offers dial-up local call rates for the Internet.
ADSL offers a basic 512Kbps downstream, 256Kbps upstream. ISDN supports 64Kbps both ways on a single line, usually doubled up to 128Kbps using two lines.
ADSL costs £39.99 a month, plus £150 installation fee for the standard consumer service, more for the faster business services. ISDN in the form of BT's Home Highway service costs £40 a month, with £13 a month of free Internet, voice, and fax calls, plus £150 installation fee. It comes with two ISDN lines, which can be doubled up to offer faster speeds.
ADSL is patchy. Originally promised in a third of homes from July, but who knows at the moment. ISDN is almost everywhere.
BT announced its ADSL pricing this summer with a starting price of £39.99 a month for consumers. However, the data speeds offered with this service - sold through BTopenworld - fall far short of the ADSL technology model.