2000 Roundup: Broadband comes to Britain - eventually

2000 promised to be the year of broadband but unfortunately BT thought otherwise and did its utmost to spoil the party

Ironically the year began with big news about what is generally regarded as the third runner for broadband delivery -- satellite. Often seen as the poor cousin to cable and ADSL, the advantage with satellite is it requires no digging, laying of cables and so is able to reach out to remote areas.

In February BT had just started the year's faffing over the rollout of ADSL, while Eurosky launched a countrywide high-speed satellite service for £9.99. The initial outlay for the service, £300 wasn't cheap and although download time was as fast as ADSL, upload time was the same as a 56K modem.

Rumours began circulating that Freeserve wanted to stream live premiership matches over the Net as part of its broadband service. Suddenly broadband was the consumer's friend... now if only they could get hold of it.

BT revealed plans to extend its ADSL rollout to 16 new towns and cities as analysts and experts warned that the forthcoming broadband era came with increased security risks.

In March the first rumblings of discontent toward BT's ADSL plans emerged as Freeserve boss John Pluthero described its attitude to broadband as a disgrace. Pluthero, in common with many other commentators, claimed BT was deliberately holding back on delivering ADSL in order to protect its ISDN business.

Rather than do something positive to disprove Pluthero, BT announced that its rollout would be delayed again -- this time until June.

In the middle of the month cable company Telewest inadvertently announced its cable modem rollout on its Web site. Despite the earlier-than-planned revelation, the service was welcomed as a much-needed alternative to BT even though the £50 a month tag was far from cheap. When the service -- dubbed blueyonder -- went live ten days later, Telewest promised a nationwide ADSL rolloutwould follow.

It later withdrew from the process (read ZDNet's 2000 Roundup of unbundling tomorrow to find out all about this).

Just a few days after April Fools Day, BT called a meeting to answer its critics, claiming to be passionate about ADSL. To underpin this it also announced a plan to wire schools with broadband connections. At the same time the security risks of broadband would not go away as it was revealed that one in four broadband-enabled PCs were at risk of hack attacks.

Finally, at the end of the month BT launched ADSL, dubbed BTopenworld, and said it would go live at the end of June. BT admitted that the £40 per month price tag was unlikely to fall. At the same time ZDNet News launched its own definitive guide to broadband services in the UK -- Broadband Britain.

Less than a month after it had launched analysts had had time to digest the details of BTopenworld and questioned whether it would be anti-competitive. In theory BT's infrastructure company was dutybound to treat openworld the same way as any other broadband ISP. In practise experts doubted it would.

Generally May was a quiet month for broadband as would-be new entrant Chello took a step back to explain the benefits of such services. Online music, one of the key uses of broadband, found an unlikely ally in BT as it claimed it would not ban users from the controversial Napster service.

In June a row which had been brewing behind the scenes at Oftel escalated as rival telcos accused BT of promoting ADSL over other flavours of DSL. Given the huge amount of criticism it had received BT perhaps unwisely blamed ISPs for a new delay to ADSL -- this time until August or September. It claimed lack of users meant the systems had not been tested thoroughly enough.

ISPs reacted angrily dismissing BT's claims while pointing to queues of users.

ISP madasafish announced its ADSL rollout in July and claimed it was not aware of any delays. At the end of the month as ISPs became increasingly frustrated BT came up with yet another excuse: this time blaming a shortage of engineers for the 100,000 user backlog. It claimed users could wait up to two months for their ADSL connection.

This less than four weeks after it had argued there were not enough customers for broadband.

And so began a new month and, no surprise to anyone, a new excuse. In August BT claimed the manual ordering system would add another month to the waiting time for customers. Good news for cable modem users though as Telewest slashed the cost of its blueyonder broadband service from £50 to £33 per month. The glitzy announcement of BTopenworld was toned down somewhat as the service eventually went live at the end of the month.

ADSL may be all about speed but the delivery behind it was all about delay backed up with tenuous tales Aesop would have been proud of.

Broadband always promised to be a huge business opportunity and in September there was speculation that a deal between Sky and BT to deliver TV via ADSL was imminent. No such deal emerged and BT has since claimed that it will not offer mass media via ADSL -- instead it is developing video-on-demand services.

It was also the month doubts started to mount about the viability of ADSL technology. It's limitations -- it only works efficiently within a 4km radius from the exchange -- meant that a third of the country would never be able to get their hands on it. Research firm Ovum claimed ADSL would only be suitable for BT as the expense of renting lines and space in the exchanges would make costs prohibitive for other operators.

ISP AOL, fresh from the unmetered battle, claimed it was prepared for a new fight, this time over broadband. At the end of the month Video Networks launched its video-on-demand ADSL service for £20 a month.

At the beginning of October BT's rival operators issued a formal complaint about what they saw as BT's discrimination in rolling out ADSL. While BTopenworld had already launched, other operators would remain dependent on wholesale ADSL services until the local loop was unbundled the following summer.

This, they said, was unfair.

BT denied that BTopenworld was getting any special favours although experts agreed that while sticking to the letter of the law, BT was not really acting in the spirit of things.

Once again the cable operators seemed ahead of the game. Ntl trialled cheaper broadband which went nationwide with a pricetag of £19.99. A report from NetValue claimed that the UK was much slower to take up broadband than many other countries, with only one percent of households broadband enabled.

There was only so long BT could hold out against the criticism and in November it finally acted to triple the number of users being connected. It apologised for the delays and other problems people were experiencing with installation. It also promised to introduce a computerised system to deal with ADSL orders and hire consultants to identify other problems with the process. In an interview with ZDNet, Oftel director general David Edmonds looked forward to universal broadband for £25 a month within two years.

Is broadband coming to your neighbourhood? Find out with ZDNet UK's Broadband Britain Guide.

Can you get high-speed access for your home or business? Find out with the ADSL Special

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