UK shrugs off American broadband troubles

UK telecomms industry confident about broadband rollout, despite US reports

Broadband in the US is causing all sorts of problems for the telcos, according to reports. Yet despite the experience over the pond, the UK telecomms industry is confident that it can sustain a high level of quality as broadband rolls out.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the mass market rollout of broadband cable Internet access across the US has led to major problems with network congestion. Large proportions of bandwidth-intensive users have caused headaches for cable providers like Excite@Home and TCI, which has resulted in a drastically slowed service for other users.

According to the WSJ, the biggest problems for cable operators are broadband users streaming out video or running home-based Web sites that clog up the network. Unlike the narrowband experience, where engaged tones limit network use, ADSL will step down its bandwidth offering to cope with demand, resulting in a broadband experience reminiscent of the early modem services.

Cable provider Excite@Home reportedly experienced a number of network failures last year, which were caused by bandwidth-intensive users. Tele-Communications also experienced severe traffic problems during its 1998 broadband rollout.

But despite the US experience, the UK telecomms industry remains confident that it can cope. Cable & Wireless (quote: CW), due to roll out its high-speed service in the autumn, "has no concerns at this point about running traffic through data PC streams," according to a spokesman. The company has already spent £400m on network upgrades "to ensure these problems don't happen".

Brave words in an industry where virtually every guarantee of a network able to cope with predicted demand has been proven wrong. One of the problems with cable Internet access is that the networks were originally designed to send data one way -- to pump television signals to the viewer. Once users start sending data back down the same pipe, though, problems can arise. "Cable networks are essentially for one-way traffic," said Tim Johnson, the founder of research firm Ovum, "As soon as you get even a small return, channel problems can occur."

The savage bandwidth demands of home Web site hosting is the most cited cause of network meltdown in the US cable market. Cable operators are introducing clauses in customer contracts to prevent such use, a defence that the UK plans to emulate. A spokesman for Cable & Wireless warns, "there will be caveats for consumers", to prevent excessive take-up of bandwidth. Telewest (quote: TWT), which is due to rollout its broadband Internet access service within the next 10 days, said that the company was confident of avoiding problems of excessive bandwidth hogging and had "systems and processes in place to avoid that situation". Unfortunately for Telewest, it hasn't had the best record of reliability, despite claims to the contrary.

Broadband Internet access over ADSL lines has built-in mechanisms to prevent bandwidth abuse. BT's network upgrade doesn't provide consumers with static IP addresses, which are vital for running applications such as a Web site. BT broadband marketing manager, Chris Simmons, pointed out that although ADSL is an "always-on" connection, "there are always glitches for a millisecond or so that will cause a change of IP address." Indeed, a Freeserve spokesman is confident that it will be able to avoid congestion problems simply by, "following BT's guidelines, which explicitly state that you cannot Web host."

However, not all industry observers are confident of a smooth ride into the broadband sunset. Adam Daum, senior analyst at Gartner Group, likens the situation to the M25. "You can keep adding lanes, but the traffic still fills them up sooner or later... on the Internet it's a 1,000 times worse," he said.

As broadband slowly edges across the UK, early adopters of cable modems will see a significant increase in performance. With market saturation, however, and a growth in bandwidth hungry applications, Daum sees "the whole thing grinding to a halt again -- I can't see a way around it."

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