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DSL Max may save BT's broadband blushes

SDSL has flopped, but analysts believe BT Max is just around the corner and could prove more attractive to small businesses

Following the failure of its SDSL services to appeal to UK businesses, BT is poised to put its faith in a new flavour of broadband.

According to analysts at Ovum, BT will begin trialling a wholesale version of ADSL broadband known as DSL Max in September.

DSL Max, known within BT as BT Max, offers the promise of faster upload speeds than standard ADSL, which could appeal to businesses who want to run bandwidth-hungry applications like VoIP and video streaming.

The key to BT Max is that it allows a business or home user to get the maximum upstream speed that is technically possible on their line. According to Richard Mahony, an analyst with Ovum, this could mean a theoretical upstream speed of 832kbps, compared to the maximum speed of 256kbps offered by ADSL today.

Mahony believes that BT will start trialling BT Max in September this year, with a commercial launch pencilled in for April 2006. A consumer version will support a maximum uploading speed of 448kbps, while an office version will reach 832kbps. There will also be two 'DataStream' versions, for telcos who want to offer their own customised versions of BT's wholesale products.

All four products will offer maximum download speeds of 8Mbps, but it's understood that BT's early trials of BT Max found that the majority of lines ran at 6Mbps, due to line quality and distance from the local exchange. These factors could also mean that some subscribers are not able to get the maximum theoretical uplink speeds.

BT wasn't able to confirm any timescales for BT Max rollout, but insiders have been hinting that new broadband products will soon be launched.

Just last week, BT confirmed it was suspending the rollout of its SDSL broadband services, due to poor take-up.

Mahony believes that BT Max may succeed where SDSL has failed.

"BT Max’s higher upstream speed [than ADSL] of up to 832kbps may be just what the market is looking for, rather than a more expensive but bandwidth-richer SDSL product," said Mahony in a research note published on Tuesday.

"For many enterprises, BT Max could be the stepping stone towards higher upstream products and therefore may take up some of the demand originally earmarked for SDSL. In addition, BT Max will be available wherever ADSL is enabled, which will make for a rapid diffusion of technology once it is made available… as opposed to the stop-start growth of SDSL availability," Mahony added.

BT had meant to offer SDSL from 800 local telephone exchanges, but is currently suspending its rollout at 729. It plans to cut the wholesale cost of SDSL by some 30 percent in November, which could stimulate demand. But at present, most enabled exchanges have no SDSL users at all.

Typically, broadband customers have been more concerned about the download speed of their broadband connection, but upload rates could become more important as broadband take-up increases.

Mahony says he has spoken to some chief information officers whose firms are running VoIP services to branch offices over ADSL. As this is a contended service, such companies could run short of bandwidth if other broadband subscribers on the same local exchange start devouring large amounts of bandwidth. DSL Max's higher upstream bandwidth could alleviate this, depending on its own contention ratio — which is not yet known.