See the future of broadband. Turn on your TV

Eugene Lacey: The UK has hit what has been reported as a significant milestone -- one million broadband subscribers. But what difference will a faster Internet really make?

One million broadband subscribers. Sounds like a big number, doesn't it -- and it's getting the kind of fanfare that suggests it is indeed a major milestone. The e-commerce minister, Stephen Timms, says the "big mill" is proof that the UK is on course for broadband greatness and Oftel's David Edmonds says it shows the government's regulatory regime is working to stimulate the broadband supply business.

What the reporting of the big number has lacked is any international context. Perhaps this is because it is far less impressive by international comparison. Germany, for example, has 2.8 million, France has 1.5 million and the US has 13.5 million -- but the most broadbanded country on the planet is South Korea with 11 DSL lines per 100 of its population.*

We are a division or two below the broadband Premier League. Although we are turning on to broadband fast, with new connections running at 20,000 a week and rising, Oftel figures suggest that nationally only 2.3 percent of BT's DSL lines are in use -- which means a massive 97.7 is still to be utilised. Expect to see more broadband monsters escaping from "the pipe" in TV commercials soon. The picture is particularly gloomy in business, where less than 10 percent of UK firms are using broadband.

Of course, it is not just about ADSL. Cable-based broadband is also rising fast, accounting for more than 50 percent of all new broadband connections, according to the Financial Times.

But what difference will broadband make to most people? On one level that's easy to answer, and some of my colleagues think it is dumb to even ask the question. Reason being -- it's about the speed of the Web, stupid.

You can see their point. Getting to narrowband Web sites at a greater speed, and enjoying the additional benefits of 'always on', plus no interference with your telephone line, makes good sense. It's just that if that's all it is -- if there are no benefits in the content and services themselves -- then perhaps this is not the massive revolution it is cracked up to be.

Why, for example, should we expect broadband to be a positive for Internet usage if users can consume exactly the same content and use exactly the same services much faster? Shouldn't this logically mean people spend less time on the Internet?

Broadband will be a wasted technology if all it does is make existing narrowband Web sites go faster. There needs to be more innovation. More use of sound, video, graphics, and animation to make broadband earn its keep. Not just bells and whistles and dancing logos -- but clever use of animation and graphics in shopping sites and Web services that really add value. Features that make using your favourites sites delightful, rather than just adequate. Features that have the potential to make you use these sites more and for longer on each visit.

Partly, the future of broadband is constrained by the Internet and computer-dominated context in which the debate is taking place. This produces a far too narrow (sorry!) definition of broadband. Millions of people in the UK already have access to, and are big users of, a rich media broadband service -- only they don't think of it as such. But that is exactly what your Sky television and cable TV services are.

If you want to see the future of broadband content and online services turn off your computer, plonk yourself down in front of the TV, reach for the remote, and press the 'red button' the next time you find yourself in front of a reality TV show.

One of the best recent examples is the BBC's interactive support for its new reality TV talent show, Fame Academy. Several video streams are available to you, so you can view whatever room in the academy interests you the most. You can vote, interact with the contestants and read background information. Sky Sports have demonstrated how e-commerce can be merged seamlessly with the broadcast stream, by enabling you to buy a team strip while you watch the game -- with no interruption to the broadband stream of digital television being delivered to your set.

The broadband experience you receive on your computer pales by comparison with what you get on your TV. This doesn't matter that much to the utility that is delivered by the computer -- because your PC has powerful data processing and memory capabilities that your TV lacks, and it delivers its value to you in a variety of other ways.

It does matter to the content itself though. BT's "monsters in the pipe" TV commercials suggest that broadband via a PC is a rich media experience. It is not. The majority of Web sites have very few pictures and animations, almost no video, and remain, for the most part, a passive (non-interactive) reading experience.

That is fine. Words and numbers are great ways of delivering information, but at the risk of sounding clichéd, a picture is worth a thousand of them. Broadband over a PC needs to be a more compelling experience. It needs to engage the user, entertain and delight -- as well as inform.

*French broadband stats from ZDNet France. German broadband stats from Point Topic. US broadband stats from The Companies and Leichtman Research Group, Inc. South Korean broadband stats from Point Topic.