Will ADSL stand the test of time?

About three years ago we were told that communications would never be the same again. Our private and public lives were on the...

About three years ago we were told that communications would never be the same again. Our private and public lives were on the brink of a revolution: the broadband revolution.

At home we would vote in the next election via our TVs and communicate in real time with friends worldwide using instant messaging. At work we would use super-fast Internet access to download mammoth files in a jiffy, and view elaborate graphics via video streaming. Who knew what the future might bring?

Then something went wrong. Expectant onlookers and commentators turned from quizzical to sceptical. The tides gradually changed from frenzied hype to bitter disappointment as it became clear that broadband was not ready to deliver on its promises.

The general feeling is that the storm has now passed and the dust settled, so what is the verdict on broadband?

Companies that took on asynchronous digital subscriber line (ADSL) in the early days found that just getting the connection installed was a real struggle as BT dragged its heels. And once they were up and running, ADSL users thought their angst was over but the BT server was not always reliable and sometimes the connection was lost for an entire day or longer.

When companies expressed their dissatisfaction with this level of service they were more or less told, "Well, what did you expect?" There are stories of customers waiting up to 14 days for a call-out operator.

On the other hand, the Government said that the UK would be broadband leaders of the G8 group of nations by 2005. A tall order, particularly as the UK has since fallen behind France - which started its roll-out after the UK - and Germany in the implementation stakes.

The fate of rural areas looked grim as BT announced that many regions were neither technically nor commercially viable locations in which to install an exchange because the return on investment would not be sufficient.

The other issue which has caused controversy has been the pricing of ADSL. Although BT has recently nearly halved its prices, UK Internet users were being asked to pay double what their European counterparts paid for broadband.
We have learnt that broadband, and more specifically ADSL, is like any other new technology. It has teething problems, it takes time to get it right and most importantly, regardless of the promises, it is not a panacea.

ADSL is no longer the buzzword of the 21st century but neither is it the damp squib that some might suggest. Broadband will not cook our dinner but it can save money and it can speed up the way we do business.

A year ago, many people eager to connect to the new technology would have been lucky to get within spitting distance of an ADSL telephone exchange. Now, the connectivity is available to about 60% of UK businesses, although the figure leans heavily towards urban areas.

Greater London is, not surprisingly, top of the league with almost a 100% business roll-out, followed closely by Greater Manchester, Surrey and Berkshire.

Regions at the other end of the spectrum include central Scotland with 19% roll-out and Cornwall with just 7%. So, ADSL is not without regional bias. However, for those who have access and choose to use it, it can bring significant benefits.
While leased lines and ISDN connections may prove too expensive for small and medium-sized firms, an ADSL connection, with its fixed monthly cost, is an affordable solution. With BT's recent broadband price cuts many small businesses can now consider ADSL for the first time enabling them to transform tedious business processes to five-minute jobs.

However, an ADSL broadband connection is not for those businesses for which 100% uptime is essential in keeping the business afloat, and this is something which is misunderstood by many. The main problem with ADSL has been its lack of resilience. Many telecoms service providers jumped into supplying the immature technology without considering how they would support it.

A significant number of businesses have come back to a traditional leased line after being let down by broadband and are willing to pay the extra if it means receiving a sturdy service with a comprehensive service level agreement. Compared to a leased line, there is no contest in terms of hardiness.

Ben White is chief executive officer at Star Internet

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