high bandwidth Internet access over ASDL trials by BT (1999)

In the trail of British Telecom offering ISDN as a retail product, a multi million pound trial of high bandwidth Internet access begins in the UK. Dubbed as ‘blisteringly fast’, this BT trial uses ASDL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) a technical hiccup that allows 2Mb/second downloads over regular copper telephone cable.
The trial, limited in scope because exchanges must be ASDL ready, involves 900 homes and businesses in north and west London. They will pay £30 a month for the service, but get to play with a good measure of hardware and services in return.
BT have essentially set up a network to span the trial area. Like a network, and for this exercise at least, the line to the centre is ‘always-on’ so there is no dialling-up. Each telecom wall connection runs to a filter that splits the line into data and telephone frequencies. The data line passes to an ASDL modem, then to a router and finally to a network card on the PC. With that much clunker, it is no surprise that this is a costly activity.

But before anyone gasps ‘at last’, they’ll spot the need for content. Too much bandwidth and no snappy content would surely make ADSL into the dullest of ideas. And so BT have unveiled BT Interactive to bring together a spectrum of high bandwidth services from names such as ITN, BBC, Carlton On-Line, Pearson Television and the Internet Movie Database. These services download their content to the server hard disk over ISDN. From here, the PC accesses it using BT View, an advanced video streaming service.

It is encouraging that at the PC end you need nothing more wacky than a Web browser to enjoy what is on offer: the services run within the Internet Explorer 4 browser as web pages, which can be taken to mean it all integrates well with the rest of the PC. But once in the driving seat, you will find menu pages richly animated with video windows and Dynamic HTML. Indeed, you will find examples of the most impressive PC graphics seen outside a multimedia CD-Rom. For example, in BBC Education’s Holiday Spain section, you mouse over menu items to see thumbnail video previews of what is to follow. There are facts about the food, the culture as well as a teach yourself Spanish area enhanced by full-screen video. Using games and filmed everyday scenarios you can practice the language. And keeping in the holiday spirit, Pearson’s ‘Wish you were here’, offers an archive of programme clips where you can browse dozens of destinations and sample each one.

Indeed the whole scenario is ideal for re-purposing of material – from twice daily news broadcasts from ITN to music from Top of the Pops. Add in car reviews from BBC Top Gear, plus a garnish of activities, databases and search engines and you can only wish it well.

Over the next six months, BT hopes to assemble a picture of people’s interactive habits. They want to measure up just what users will pay for and how often they will press a ‘buy’ button. The current thinking is that people visit the PC for information more than television. But time will tell if consumers see this as a brilliantly enhanced PC information service or as disappointing video on demand.

If today we know what the ‘killer applications’ were for satellite TV, and we’re still guessing at what consumers want from digital TV, here with ADSL services we really are guessing. Will consumers really go for the games playing services in the trial bundle –

including BT’s established ‘Wireplay’ with game downloads and online playing? Or a new high bandwidth adventure game called ‘Cookie World’ – made with Macromedia Director and enriched with streaming video and virtual reality?

Could it be the business services – and there’s an idea – which offer online training plus company and market information? Among these is ‘The Fantastic Corporation’ which uses multicast channels to juice-up the PC hard disk cache with information on developments in industry. This is ‘push’ technology – the idea that turned the web upside down and promised to send users information that matches their needs rather than have them collect it. ‘Push’ should work superbly over an ‘always-on’ line so its success is just down to what is being pushed.

Or, could the Internet be the killer application for selling high bandwidth lines? BT’s bundle offers access via Line One and Home Campus – both retail Internet services that are available over normal connections. The trial enhances these such that requests for popular Web pages will be stored in a local cache to dramatically improve their access time. While the ‘Internet’ is where we came in, the current set up has several constraints in terms of Internet bandwidth and functionality – for example, you couldn’t set up your PC as a web server, or access it remotely, or use Internet-style video conferencing – a killer app of sorts. But then, I ask cynically, who would want to do anything like that.

BT Interactive www.btinteractive.com

CookieWorld www.fortune-cookie.com

ITN www.itn.co.uk

BBC Top Gear www.topgear.beeb.com

BBC Top of the Pops www.totp.beeb.com

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