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What is broadband access.

It is true to say that the Internet has gone through a revolution in the UK with the advent of broadband. There are now more users with it than with dialup and BT claims (almost) all exchanges are now broadband enabled. More recently we have seen the advent of higher speed links even outside of the metropolitan centres.

Broadband access is an always on, high speed Internet connection. Put simply, you will not have to dial your ISP and go through all the warbling noises and error messages, the Internet will be instantly available to you.

For the great majority of users, there are really only three high speed technologies in the frame at present.

ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) – supplied by BT & others

Cable modems – supplied by cable companies

ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) – supplied by BT & others

ISDN isn’t really broadband and cannot be considered the media of choice because the user is still charged for the time on line. However in areas that may never get ADSL, (more than a maximum of approx 3.5 miles/5.5 kms from the telephone exchange), it may be the only option. If a leased line is a realistic solution, then you will be in a large company, and will probably need to leave the choices to the IT dept.

There is a fourth option, Satellite broadband. This has been trialled by BT as a 500Kbits/s speed connection, and 150Kbits/s for uploads. Trouble is, installation is very expensive, even for a single user.

Using ADSL or Cable Modems, you should be able to connect from speeds of 128Kbits/s, up to 24Mbits/s (yes, 24Mbits/s with Be), compared to the current highest modem speeds of 56Kbits/s. In practice you are unlikely to get close to even this with a modem, although with a cable phone line, 53Kbits/s is possible. With ISDN you get 64Kbits/s using one channel and 128Kbits/s using both channels, although you will be charged for two calls if you do use two channels.

There are, of course, one or two caveats regarding the services. The ISP you sign up with should be able to give you a contention ratio for the service. This is the maximum number of users per circuit. Because of contention, during peak times the connection will probably slow down. The current ratio for business users is set by BT at 20:1, which means that up to twenty other users may be sharing the same bandwidth. The current domestic ratio is 50:1, and these ratios will not change until the local loop is un-bundled since all ISP’s have to use BT exchanges at present. With cable modems, each user is technically part of a wide area network, so it depends on how many other users are connected. The two main players, NTL and Telewest (now Virgin Media), do not give any guarantees of service levels at present other than saying that a minimum speed of 256Kbits/s should be attainable.

Not counting the different installation requirements, the other main limitation is that you may have to move from your current ISP, unless they decide to offer ADSL. Because of the costs involved, it is possible that many smaller ISP’s will not offer broadband, particularly those who rely on a percentage of the phone call for their income. Cable modems will only be available from the cable companies, so there is unlikely to be any choice there. If you are sufficiently confident, you can buy a ‘bare wire’ self-install service for ADSL, which is cheaper to install and can use existing phone wiring with plug-in adapters called micro-filters. Many of the larger ISP’s now offer this package.

Paul Wood

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