Despite government commitment to a broadband Britain, nearly three quarters of the population have never heard the term "broadband" and 30 percent of those that had thought it referred to radio, according to a survey from cable firm ntl.
As a result, ntl is planing a £5m advertising campaign to educate the public about the benefits of high-speed always-on Internet access, hoping that it can increase the 13,000 customers of its own broadband service to 100,000 by the end of the year.
Cable modem services account for just 15 percent of the broadband market, with BT's ADSL service making up the rest. Cable was originally seen as a way of creating much-needed competition in both voice and Internet markets, but that strategy is now regarded by many as a failure. Local loop unbundling, in which operators gain access to BT's exchanges, is now being put forward by telecoms regulator Oftel as the best way of creating competition in the broadband market although the rollout has been beset with problems.
The government, meanwhile, remains convinced that it can create a broadband Britain and has set itself the bold target of making the UK the best place in the G7 for broadband by 2005. Despite this, whole swathes of the country currently, and for the foreseeable future, have no access to any broadband services.
Concerned about the growing digital divide, the government has offered regional development agencies £30m to find solutions to the lack of broadband in rural areas. Critics argue that the amount is far too small and the real issue the government should be tackling is BT.
BT has been accused by Freeserve and AOL of giving preferential treatment to its own broadband ISP BTopenworld. Both ISPs have called on Oftel to undertake an urgent enquiry. There have been complaints from operators and customers about the huge waiting lists for ADSL installation and the lack of service agreements between the telco and ISPs. The ray of hope offered by local loop unbundling as a cheaper and less BT-dependent way of rolling out broadband has dimmed since nine operators withdrew from the process and BT was hauled before a government select committee to answer accusations of foot-dragging.
Cable is currently a lot cheaper than ADSL and while most analysts consider that ADSL will dominate broadband in the UK, the price of cable is far more attractive to most people. While BT's broadband services remains at £40 a month, those with access to cable -- around half the country -- can get an equivalent cable service for £19.99 per month, plus a £149 installation fee.
As well as its advertising campaign, ntl is also considering increasing the speed of its current broadband service from 512Kbit/s to 1Mbit/s. In London, the cable firm is trialling an ethernet connection which provides speeds up to 10Mbit/s. In an effort to bring broadband to non-PC owners the firm is also trialling a service which embeds broadband into digital set-top boxes in Manchester.
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