Telecoms regulator Oftel is poised to announce that there are more than half a million mass-market broadband users in Britain -- a sign that the UK could be catching up with other countries in the high-speed Internet stakes.
Oftel is expected to publish its latest statistics of Internet use in the UK within the next few days, and sources have indicated that these figures will show that at least 500,000 people have got broadband at home.
This means that the number of people with broadband at home is rising fast, as three months ago there were only around 340,000 broadband-enabled UK consumers. Consumer broadband services have been available in Britain for around two years, but until recently take-up has been disappointingly slow.
The 500,000 mark is a significant milestone in the journey towards Broadband Britain, and is likely to please the telecoms industry, Oftel and the government.
These "mass-market broadband" users will have signed up with cable firms ntl or Telewest, or with an Internet Service Provider that offers a broadband product based on BT Wholesale's ADSL product. One significant factor behind the rapid increase is the price cuts made by BT Wholesale back in February. This has led to a surge in demand -- retailers are running low on ADSL modems and BT is dealing with more than 10,000 new ADSL customers a week.
In a speech to the Social Market Foundation last week, David Edmonds, Oftel's director general, said that there were at least 460,000 broadband users in the UK.
"Over 180,000 consumers now use ADSL while over 280,000 consumers have high speed services using cable modems," said Edmonds.
According to Oftel, the ADSL figure quoted by Edmonds referred to data from mid-April and the cable figure referred to data given at the start of April.
Given that more than 10,000 people are signing up for ADSL each week, and the cable companies have also been experiencing strong growth in broadband take-up, it is likely that the UK is set to smash through the figure of 500,000 broadband users imminently, if it hasn't already.
An Oftel spokeswoman would not confirm that the regulator was about to announce that the UK had reached the 500,000 mark. "We'd be delighted if we did manage to reach it," she said.
BT Retail's new "no-frills" broadband is expected to go on sale this autumn, bringing BT's target of one million broadband users by summer 2003 further within reach.
E-commerce and technology companies expect to benefit greatly once broadband becomes a widely used way of connecting to the Net, as it makes content like video and high-quality audio more attractive.
Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman, said last week that he believes it is extremely important that homes have high-speed Internet capability. "If there's a breakthrough in hardware that we're not getting fast enough, it's broadband capability," Gates said. "Even that over the next five years I expect to be tackled."
British organisations, particularly Oftel and BT, have been criticised for failing to make broadband available and attractive for UK consumers, even as other countries quickly rolled out the technology.
In Europe, Germany had more than one million broadband connections at the beginning of this year, while France had more than 500,000 broadband connections, according to Gartner.
South Korea has the world's biggest broadband population, with more than 50 percent of its 14.3 million households connected to a high-speed line.
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