Turned out late again

They say you can never have too much bandwidth. All IT managers would agree with that sentiment, writes Mike Hardwidge.

They say you can never have too much bandwidth. All IT managers would agree with that sentiment, writes Mike Hardwidge.

IBM's Link_2001 happened in mega-glitter-but-not-too-much-sparkle citadel Las Vegas, which was the brainchild of the late Bugsy Siegel before his colleagues collaborated to provide him with an assisted passage from this mortal coil. That Las Vegas was a mob city - every one of the billions of light bulbs works and, not unlike Mr Siegel's late and fellow Museum of Gambling habituee Liberace, the whole show is so fantastically vulgar it has a style and class all its own - is both obvious and undenied but all that, says the city's pr department, has changed.

Observing the in your face Mammon, the cash dispensers with the convenient PIN bypass buttons, and the signs on the airport escalators which read 'WATCH YOUR STEP - have a nice day', the cynical might be forgiven the notion that the mob is still in there somewhere. Link_2001 had little overtly to do with European broadband, but the over riding canvassed opinion was voiced by Giga Information Group vice president Bradford Day when he remarked 'it's the same old story - the European telcos are still in there somewhere'.

British Telecom used to be the Post Office, in which capacity it wrote to 70s time sharing company IP Sharp Associates' London office, announcing that the company's 'mailbox' system - the term 'e-mail' had yet to be coined - was against regulations and that IPSA should install software on its network which 'differentiated between the transmission of messages and the transmission of data.' All that, says BT, has changed. Observing a recent BBC Watchdog with the head of AOL UK claiming BT was cheating and a BT spokesman retorting blandly and unsupportedly that it wasn't, the cynical might be forgiven...

Principal consultant and internet working specialist Iain Stevenson at analyst Ovum was author of a white paper which observed 'as the Duchess of Windsor once said: 'You can never be too rich or too thin' - the history of IT and telecommunications repeatedly proves that you can never have too much memory, or too much bandwidth - the demand for both is ultimately insatiable. Responding effectively to growth', Mr S continues, 'requires the traditional carriers to understand the data market and act with imagination and speed. These are not qualities for which the traditional telcos are renowned - indeed in most cases they don't possess them.'

There are some of the opinion - those outside BT and Oftel, for example - who would say broadband is here, it's ready to go, and BT is deliberately blocking the process with Oftel in its traditional role as the parrot on the pirate's shoulder. BT and Oftel do not share this opinion - well, they wouldn't, would they - and there is a division between the dissenters as to whether the broadband roll out delay results from incompetence or malice.

It seems generally to be accepted that, technically, BT is spot on. Virtualplus technical director Paul Zambon - the company describes itself as 'a leading provider of enhanced communications products' - says 'technically, I reckon BT's a match for anyone, and it's better than most, but the way they messed up the introduction of ADSL was appalling.' Mr Z was recently quoted as saying of Oftel: 'You get the impression you've somehow intruded on some oak panelled tweed skirts and leather elbows office from an Ealing comedy,' and perceives no reason to change his opinion.

Glenn Manoff is vice president, corporate communications at Ebone, which styles itself 'the original and most experienced data-only broadband optical and IP networking company in Europe. The Ebone network', the pr stuff rattles on happily, 'is Europe's leading broadband IP network, and the first IP network to operate at 10 Gbps', and the company specialises in carrying large scale traffic for operators like AOL and Yahoo. Ebone's network covers an estimated 25 per cent of Europe's IP traffic, and 'uses state-of-the-art dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM), synchronous digital hierarchy (SDH), and optical transport technologies, and delivers premium wavelength, private line, internet and IP virtual private network (IPVPN) services to carriers, service providers, and businesses.'

IP, since you ask, stands for internet protocol which is now pretty much the accepted standard, but what, actually, is broadband? 'Basically,' says Mr M, 'it's generally accepted as anything that goes faster than two megabits a second.' There is an additional initial collector's birthday list of stuff, including ATM (asynchronous transfer mode), MPLS (multi protocol label switching), ISDN (integrated services digital network), WDM (bog standard wavelength division multiplexing), ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line), DSL (same thing but without the asymmetrical bit), HSDSL (high speed digital subscriber line), GSHDSL (Golite symmetrical same thing, whatever that may be), and VDSL, which naturally stands for 'very fast digital subscriber line'.

We digress. Ebone, says Glenn Manoff, has an advantage in that its customers tend to be large - 'there are fewer but bigger deals' - but he is emphatic that his company's enforced dependence on BT and other European telcos is no great gift - 'it's just not good enough - they need to get faster, better, and cheaper. The costs,' he adds, 'just get passed on - we get stuffed by the telcos, so we have to build in a cost to our customers, and so on; as usual, it's the end user who gets stuffed eventually.'

What should one actually do about broadband? 'Look outside the four walls of your business. Decide what you really need - don't buy it just because it's there; and always be aware of the security implications - this isn't a private network - it's the internet.'

Gray's Inn Road based WorldCom says it's 'the world's first fully integrated, global communications services company' and WorldCom's Richard Woods says 'for the delivery of really significant content to end users, and for the best remote working services including ASPs, broadband is the essential ingredient. We are keen to deliver broadband, but we need an economically viable proposition, and so far, as Oftel observes, this is not available. Unbundling is the key ingredient, and the opportunity for UK plc hinges on accelerating ULL, as well as improving BT's offerings.'

'ULL' stands for local loop unbundling (backwards) and means the cessation of the current UK situation whereby, however and wherever your circuit, there's always a bit of BT chargeable circuit in there somewhere. Oftel has told BT to unbundle - i.e. allow other operators to take over that last bit of BT wire - but the general concensus is that BT isn't going at it like an express train. Oftel says it can apply 'sanctions', is hazy as to what these might be, but a spokesperson thinks Oftel once sent BT a stroppy letter.

BT head of internet and IP network services Dave Hughes forecast nearly 18 months ago that BT would become 'the leading IP network services provider in the UK' with an IP backbone network '60 times faster and able to grow to 300 times the capacity of today's IP network. Currently', he went on, 'one in every four calls made across BT's networks is for IP. The IP dial access market alone is now forecast to grow to 35 billion call minutes by March 2000, and to 140 billion call minutes by March 2004.' Mr Hughes was unavailable for comment, but the growth is happening, and the question remains 'what, apart from trying to wade through this week's BT obfuscation, should people be doing about it?'

Lesley Hansen was international marketing director at Nortel whence she memorably remarked of the internet explosion 'the customer from Hell is coming to a telephone near you soon.' Ms Hansen is now ensconced as marketing director EMEA at Net to Net Technologies in Newbury, and her views are no less sanguine.

'Broadband,' says Ms H, 'caused a massive upheaval in the US, because they thought all they had to do was throw venture capital at it, and the customers would just turn up. They didn't much and, when they did, they'd take off for a cheaper deal as and when.' Europe, she believes, is 'culturally different, and people are more likely to look at added value than raw bandwidth'; and, speaking of added value, her company can naturally offer solutions that would make your hair curl.

OK, OK - so what about broadband? Ms H has a techie at her elbow who introduces words like 'spectrum' and 'firmware' but, basically, if it isn't ramming more stuff down what's there, it's bigger pipes. On which subject Lesley Hansen agrees the trouble with the existing pipes - 'you use what you've got' - is they're a bit of a mish mash - there's fibre optic, copper and bits of wireless - the hi-tech equivalent of Meccano and Lego with a lump of Subbuteo thrown in.

Security is an issue and 'you take a view, and you take care'. BT? 'It's reasonable they should want to hang on to their captive market for as long as possible, but they are slowing things down - it's the old left-hand ignorance of right-handed activities.' Just daft, then? 'No - there's certainly an element of malice - not a hundred per cent, but it definitely exists.'

There is, of course, absolutely no evidence of this; as they say in Las Vegas.

Broadband is generally accepted to be definable as any transmission that goes faster than two megabits a second, and is the latest offering in the world's attempts to fill the bottomless pit of demand for transmission speed. The term offering is used loosely as, like the Colossus of Rhodes, and other wonders of the ancient world, BT seems to be in the way.

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