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What the Hell is… BT ADSL all about

Tim Richardson answers the questions

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BTopenworld - the new Internet division of British Telecommunications plc - finally unveiled its pricing for its broadband ADSL services yesterday In effect, it was the pre-launch of mass market broadband access in Britain. The service - for both business and domestic customers - will go live in July 2000. Although the announcement is welcomed, it does pose questions about what's on offer and how it will be delivered. The Register raises these issues and attempts to answer them - well, some of them at least. ADSL. What's that all about then? It stands for asymmetric digital subscriber line and is high speed, always on, content rich Net access that is on the vanguard of the Internet wave. Gosh, that's impressive. Must be bloody good then? Yeah, sort of. Except there are some worries that it may not be as fast as everyone makes out. You see, BTopenworld has confirmed that the retail service will be served with a contention ratio of 50:1, with 20:1 for business users. That means, for every available line of bandwidth, you could have as many as 50 people all sharing the same connection. The result, is that at peak times, the service could slow down, especially if people are playing online games, downloading large files or accessing video on demand. BTopenworld admitted as much yesterday. That sounds bad. Shouldn't they rename it congestion ratio? Very funny. Although BTopenworld said the service could suffer it insisted contention ratios would come down and speeds would increase over time. Adrian Mardlin, MD of Buckinghamshire-based ISP, Nildram, is fairly relaxed about it. He said: "The service will be trashed a little but to start with but should settle down once people normalise their usage." Unlike Nick Rosen, director of the Online Research Agency, who reckons this could be a real problem. He said: "No way is it going to work with a contention ration of 50:1. It should be 6:1 - max," he said. So what does this mean? It's one of those unfathomable questions. We'll only know how the service will stand up when it's tested. We'll just have to suck it and see, that's all. Although, if the service does deteriorate it will be interesting to know if BTopenworld will compensate users. So people aren't certain about how the service will stand up. Surely there can be no question over the price? You're right there. £39.99 (inc VAT for domestic users and plus VAT for business users) is at the lower end of the suggested price bracket for retail punters. Some early speculation put the cost of ADSL at more than £150 a month although most thought it would settle somewhere between £40 and £60 a month. Now that it's been confirmed BTopenworld will provide broadband Net access at the lower end of this price band, most people will probably be happy with that - although there are always those who will say it is too high, whatever the cost. And of course, cynics will argue that BT deliberately inflated early price speculation just to make it appear that its offering is competitive. No matter. FYI, BTopenworld is £10 a month less than Telewest's broadband service although a spokesman for the cableco was quick to point out that if you included installation costs, they were about the same. Ah, installation costs, BTopenworld's going to waive them if people pre book, is that right? Correctamundo. Register your interest before 30 June 2000 and BTopenworld will waive the £150 it cost to install the kit in your home or workplace. Other service providers such as AOL, Freeserve or Demon will still have to charge punters the same... unless they decide to follow BTopenworld's lead and absorb the cost. Good heavens, no installation costs, competitive prices -- is BTopenworld going to make any money? Not at the beginning. BTopenworld says that at £39.99 it is "going to take a hit" on the cost of service but said that in time, advertising and e-commerce revenue would boost its income. It reckons it will break even within three years but admitted that the service will be subsidised - certainly at first. Subsidised? Surely, that's against BT's licensing agreement? Apparently not. A spokeswoman for the winged watchdog said that as long as it was charged the same wholesale price for the service as everyone else (£35 per user, roughly) then it wasn't a problem. Well, this must really put a rocket up BTopenworld's competitors, wouldn't you say? Yeah, guess so, although none will really admit to it. AOL and Freeserve have both confirmed that they will be offering their ADSL packages in July and both say it will be priced competitively, although they are still remaining coy about exact pricing arrangements. It will be interesting to see how they - and the other service providers - respond. Okay, this is all fine and dandy, so why is everyone saying that BT has a year on its competitors? Surely, its competitors are launching at the same time, this July. You've just said so, haven't you? Kind of. You see, we've been talking about BTopenworld, BT's mass-market Net business focused increasingly on broadband services. But it's being supplied by Ignite, BT's data-centric broadband IP business focused on corporate and wholesale markets. Oh... We know it's confusing but do try to keep up. All the service providers offering ADSL services this summer are using wholesale broadband products from Ignite (BT). It won't be until July 2001 that other telcos will be able to install their ADSL kit in the local exchanges (aka unbundling the local loop(ULL)) giving service providers and consumers a real choice of supplier. Many predict that this competition will drive down the cost of ADSL and other telecoms costs for consumers once ULL happens. So, is that it? Have we cracked this ADSL thing now? No, not really. Ask yourself this; why is BTopenworld chucking so much money at an advertising and branding campaign to promote the technology when there are tens of thousands - hundreds of thousands - of people already gagging for it? Anything else? Well, it will only be available to some 35 per cent o the population to start with and despite BT boss, Sir Peter Bonfield, saying this is the most aggressive roll-out in the world, there are those who won't get it for some time. Is that it? No. There appears to be a lack of support for systems other than x86 boxes (Apples are to be welcomed, just heard) with USB slots running Windows. It seems Linux workstation will be unable to use this ADSL service, not only because of the limited USB support in the 2.2 series kernel, but also because my motherboard simply doesn't have a USB interface... Good grief. ® Related Stories BT rips open ADSL pricing kimono BT McKinseyed in bid for world leadership

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