What has broadband done for us?

From dot-coms to government departments, the consensus is broadband has had a huge impact on the way the Web is developing and has created a succession of innovative online business models

The Age of Broadband is nigh. It might not have arrived in time to ride the wave of the Internet boom, but the spread of high-speed connections has achieved something more important: critical mass.

By the end of this year, some 1.8 million households in the UK will have access to high-speed Internet services, or just over 5 percent of all households nationwide. Globally, there are now 80 million high-speed subscribers, an increase of almost 75 percent over the 2002 figures, according to research group Point Topic.

That is a lot of people -- and it's having a huge effect on what we see and do online. Video and music are increasingly becoming the norm, and consumers are enthusiastically adopting high-speed e-commerce. In fact, those who move to broadband are three times more likely to download videos as those using a dial-up connection, according to a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a US non-profit organisation that studies the impact of the Web on everyday life.

Train times to bank accounts
Broadband is also changing our daily lives, says Jed Kelko, an analyst with Forrester Research. "Broadband means that more of our daily transactions are conducted online, from checking train times to accessing our bank account," he says.

Research conducted by analyst group Ovum suggests that the increased use of broadband has been responsible for the growth of several applications. Ovum argues that software downloads, music downloads, video on demand, online learning, live concert broadcasts, online gaming, gambling, and adult entertainment could not have survived without broadband.

Always-on applications
Of course, these services existed before broadband, but the key point is that these applications are compelling enough for people to go out and buy broadband services, says Andy Kitchener, chief executive of e-commerce software vendor Shopcreator. "Broadband is evolving from an exciting new technology to being a platform for these powerful, always-on applications," he says. Applications such as BT's Datasure online backup or Voice over IP phone services would not have survived without broadband, Kitchener claims.

While downloading music and video is a must for consumers, the 65 percent of businesses currently using broadband connections have different priorities. Recent research conducted by Shopcreator and BT Global Services identified four areas where broadband has most impact on businesses: e-trading, backup and security, collaborative working and expenditure reduction. "Everyone is familiar with the benefits of broadband for personal use, whether it's faster music downloads or faster email, but that doesn't necessarily translate to business environment," says Shopcreator's Kitchener. "For businesses, the real benefit of high-speed access is the ability to use faster, more reliable connections for things like e-commerce and Web conferencing."

All UK tax services available online
The Inland Revenue believes the growing popularity of broadband has changed the way citizens use its online services. The IR is exploiting the potential of broadband with new services, including online documents such as self-service applications that would be impossibly slow over a dial-up connection.

Eventually, all UK tax services will be available electronically, including secure email, electronic tax returns and refund facilities, says Terry Hawes, head of e-service development at the Inland Revenue. However, the organisation can't afford to fully exploit broadband to offer a richer, more highly designed Web site. "People might be on a high-speed connection, but then again they might be using an old 14Kbps dial-up modem," he says. "As a public sector organisation, we have to accommodate both extremes of the spectrum."

Broadband is a term applied to a range of technologies that make accessing the Internet up to 30 times faster than was possible using a standard dial-up connection. To be considered broadband, a connection only needs to deliver data at speeds of 256Kbps or faster. Broadband isn't just changing what we do in offices: consumer adoption of broadband mobile phones and wireless broadband is also increasing dramatically.

One million customers for Real Networks
So how has broadband changed the Internet? For starters, Web sites are launching new information and entertainment services that make the most of high-speed connections. For £5 per month, football fans can watch near-live match highlights via the Sky Sports Broadband service. Previously, they had to make do with online radio broadcasts or TV reports. Around a million people pay a monthly fee to Real Networks in return for access to online video and audio programs, such as CNN news clips and sports reports.

Apple's successful iTunes service has proved that millions of Web users are prepared to pay for music downloads that were once free on file-sharing services like Napster. Recent reports show that more than 50 million tunes have been purchased through the service since its launch in April 2003.

The fundamental design of Web sites and services has also begun to change to meet the demands of a broadband audience, says David Greggains, vice-president of operations with the DSL Forum, an industry consortium that promotes high-speed DSL access. "With broadband, it's now possible to leaf through a virtual catalogue for the first time," he says. "Companies are now starting to realise that to differentiate themselves they have to offer these services and things like moving images, music and highly coloured sites."

Virtual catalogues for the first time
In addition, Greggain believes that businesses are changing the types of service they offer because of broadband access. "New broadband technologies like SDSL (symmetric DSL, which offers equally high upload and download speeds) let companies do completely new things, like online gaming and video on demand," he says. The DSL Forum has already seen these services dramatically increasing in popularity in countries such as Korea and Belgium, where higher-speed broadband services like SDSL are available.

In some cases, broadband has enabled entirely new businesses to flourish. ImperaData, for example, offers online backup and recovery to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) -- a service that would be impossible without high-speed access.

Online backup and recovery
But despite the benefits this apparent high-speed utopia has to offer, there are obstacles to broadband adoption that mean businesses can't forget about dial-up users just yet. Research released last week by the Institute of Directors revealed that almost half of Britain's chief executives feel the UK government isn't doing enough to support broadband adoption.

The research, conducted in association with ISP Tiscali, also showed that while 90 percent of chief executives believe broadband is a vital business issue, 78 percent felt that a lack of local broadband access is inhibiting British business. "Basically, the UK needs more coverage, more competition and more bandwidth options to realise the potential of broadband," says Jonathan Cummings, director of e-business at the IoD.