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Research questions broadband's speed appeal

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New research has questioned whether the key benefits of broadband really do boil down to "speed" and "always-on" access to the Internet.

Traditionally, these two points are considered as the main selling points for broadband. But research which looked at how exactly people use broadband in their homes and at work suggests that the industry's marketeers may be missing a trick.

The research, part of a joint project by the iSociety think-tank and the Broadband Stakeholders Group (BSG), is believed to be the first "ethnographic" research into broadband of its kind in the UK. Instead of merely asking people questions, this study actually observed people to see how they interacted with their broadband service, seeking to understand the place broadband has in everyday life.

The headline conclusions from the work carried out so far will certainly make those in the industry stop and think. For it found speed is not the be-all and end-all of broadband. Nor is its attraction the fact that it is always on, although these points may be key for heavy users, such as gamers and those who indulge in downloading large files.

Instead, for the "average" home user, one of the benefits of broadband is that it allows people to dip in and out of their Net connection without having to worry about ramping up a large bill, enabling people to include the Net into other parts of their lives.

As one of those under the microscope put it: “Broadband removes the phobia of being online too much - you can relax a bit.” In other words, far from being able to do things more quickly, broadband enables people to do more.

The author of the research, James Crabtree, told The Register: "Broadband is being marketed in the same way that fast cars are marketed to young men. My mother's car might go at 110mph but that's not why she bought it. Selling on speed alone misses out on what makes broadband attractive to 'ordinary' people."

Concerning the "always-on" tag, many household PCs spend large amounts of time switched off, often shut away in a bedroom or study. This suggests an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality where the PC - and, therefore, broadband - is under-used and undervalued.

The research found that broadband access in itself doesn't transform online behaviour. Neither does it trigger high levels of sophisticated use or drastically change the amount of time people spend online. And except for heavy users, neither does it lead to a major increase in the consumption of content.

What it does do, though, is make using and accessing the Net a better experience giving people the confidence to explore the potential of the Internet more.

The trouble with this, of course, is that these benefits are harder for marketeers to get across to prospective punters. If this research - which is still ongoing - is anything to go by then the industry will need to think again about how they punt broadband to the masses. ®

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