Midband to launch this summer, with limitations

Once billed as the answer to the UK's broadband divide, is Midband any more than just unmetered ISDN?

BT is planning a commercial launch of Midband, its forthcoming 128kbps Internet access product, within months.

However, the product will not offer as much functionality as previously announced, which could limit its ability to help close the UK's broadband divide.

The telco has also alerted ISPs that it is planning to offer a wholesale version of Midband. There had been speculation that Oftel might force such a move, but BT -- as it had already intimated -- has taken the plunge without being pushed.

A BT spokesman confirmed on Tuesday that the company hopes to have made Midband commercially available this summer, but said that it would not provide an always-on email service. Pierre Danon, BT Retail's chief executive, had said this feature would be included when he announced Midband at last November's e-Summit.

"This first version of Midband won't have always-on Internet access or an always-on email facility. We're still looking to offer it, and hope to update Midband as soon as possible," a BT spokesman told ZDNet UK.

"We're still confident that we can crack the nut and offer these features soon, but it's proving tougher than anticipated," he explained.

Midband is based on ISDN, and the promise of an always-on email service was seen as the main feature that distinguished it from existing ISDN products. According to BT, though, there will still be differences.

"This will be an unmetered ISDN product, while the majority of ISDN products today are metered," said the BT spokesman, explaining that users will pay a fixed fee per month, rather than per minute spent online.

"Also, service providers will be charged a fee per user per month, rather than buying large blocks of capacity, which is a key difference as well," he added.

It is understood that Midband will be capped -- restricting users to a certain number of hours online per month.

ISDN (or Integrated Services Digital Network) is a venerable technology, dating back about 20 years, and was originally offered by telcos to those who needed faster data connections than were possible using ordinary telephone connections. A major advantage over ADSL is that ISDN is accessible to anyone on the telephone system, but the technology never took off because of high prices and a metered charging system.

Pricing details for Midband aren't yet available, but this could be another big difference between Midband and traditional ISDN. At the e-Summit Danon did say that Midband would be "cheaper, but not much cheaper" than BT Broadband, which costs £27 per month.

ISDN creates two independent 64kbps connections to the home, which can be used for either voice or data. The Midband system will combine the two channels for a 128kbps connection, compared with ADSL's 512kpbs.

While ISDN isn't always-on, connections are far faster to make than a dial-up phone call, taking only about a second. Like ADSL, ISDN requires an engineer to install special equipment in the home, and needs a Terminal Adapter to communicate with a computer.

BT is thought to have had a flat-rate ISDN system ready to go about ten years ago, but it was never launched because of internal politics over billing. The company still takes in considerable revenues from its traditional ISDN lines.

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