Science & Technology: 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? by Sandra Vogel

Article excerpt

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. …