Although today marks BT's announcement of nationwide ADSL, the company has been running a London-based trial of the technology since last October. Fortuitously I live within the trial area: since November, I've had 2 megabits/second ADSL piped directly into my flat. Various friends in the area have also been connected to the trial: between us, we've clocked up about four man-years of experience.
It would be wrong to say it has worked flawlessly, and even more incorrect to say that BT has run the trial with any degree of aplomb. But the overriding opinion of ADSL is that it is wonderful -- it can and will change your life.
In case that sounds like hype, a few examples. The sheer speed means that a five megabyte file arrives in under a minute, leaving plenty of headroom for simultaneous Real Audio feeds, web browsing, or whatever. Because there are no time charges, there's absolutely no reason not to download as much as you like, as often as you like. The sense of freedom is enormous. The Internet itself is also much better than you'd think -- 300 kilobits/second streaming video isn't quite TV quality but it's not bad. The Net will happily serve that across from the West Coast of the USA -- most of the time. And if you want Shuttle audio, or the BBC World Service, or some obscure American radio station playing as background while you work or play, just do it. It's free.
But the biggest difference is the way the Net becomes part of your everyday life at home. Say you're watching a TV programme and it mentions something you're quite interested in -- you can find out as much as you like in a few seconds because you've already got a browser window or three open and waiting. A friend in the US wants to ICQ you? You'll hear the bleep -- instant contact. You want to check on a book you're thinking of buying, or a holiday you're thinking of taking, or whatever? The information's there.
It gets to be a habit, one you miss when you're not near the terminal. When out with ADSL-enabled friends of an evening, there'll be three or four times during the conversation when one or other of us wants to check a fact or look something, can't because we're not at home, and sigh in frustration. If nothing else, ADSL users will become natural purchasers of cellular-enabled PDAs -- you just can't leave it behind.
And all this is before you start to add the other things ADSL is a natural for: online gaming, videophones, high-quality music online, those endless chat sessions, software upgrades, browsing e-commerce sites, fast connectivity to your work systems, remote control of your parents' computer when it goes wrong and you have to fix it, getting your email immediately, and so on.
You'll notice that I haven't mentioned any of the online services that BT itself has been testing as part of the trial. This is because I never used them, and by all accounts nobody else on the trial bothered much either. BT provided a cumbersome and impenetrable front end to a selection of mediocre content and unreliable services that illustrated only quite how good the unadorned Web is for delivering exactly what you want with the minimum of fuss.
My fellow triallists and I agree: it is unthinkable to go back to any sort of dial-up connectivity after the ADSL experience. Indeed, one rumour has it that the first trial was with BT managers who flatly refused to let the engineers take away their equipment after it was scheduled to end -- we feel exactly the same way.
Now, let's hope that the cable companies respond with decent, cheap cable modem access at similar speeds and lower prices. This country deserves good connectivity -- and it looks like we're going to get it.
Go to the ADSL News Special with today's news, technical information and insights from the UK's leading comms. journalist, Rupert Goodwins.
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