The Zen of ADSL

To give the internet more than virtual possibilities, the UK government and telecoms industry need to get real about the infrastructure.

Stay calm, I tell myself. Your blood pressure is already too high, and you’re only one more episode of frustration away from apoplexy.

Think of it as a test, a step to enlightenment. As Master Xuyun says, ‘Put down all entangling conditions, let not one thought arise’ (1). How can I achieve this? Through presenting myself with conundrums that are unsolvable by the rational mind. Why is the panda? Before I was born, what was my original face?

Why is the internet connection down again?

My Zen master would not want to answer that question. British Telecom (BT) can’t. ‘There’s too much noise on the line, we think. We should never have fitted it in the first place. You’re probably too far from the exchange.’ Too far from the exchange? In the centre of London, one of the biggest cities in the world? God help the rest of the world if up-and-coming Farringdon, London (home of your beloved spiked), cannot connect to broadband internet.

BT has been getting it in the neck from a lot of people over Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL), a new form of internet connection which allows old-fashioned copper wire to handle much faster data speeds than ever before. Thousands of users are waiting to be set up. Even when BT does get around to them, they might not be able to get it if they are too far from an exchange. If they do get it, for many (including spiked) the service is poor.

Many other internet service providers (ISPs) would like to have a go, but effectively BT still has a monopoly on putting equipment into the exchanges, despite long-standing attempts to ‘unbundle’ access to the copper between the exchanges and end-users called ‘the local loop’.

In the meantime, BT seems to be using that monopoly to support its own subsidiaries, rather than sharing access out. Freeserve, Britain’s biggest ISP, has complained that it has been given on average only 16 new connections per day, while BT OpenWorld has been getting 200 to 300 (2). No wonder a recent report by NetValue placed the UK second from bottom of the broadband access league (pipped to wooden spoon position by China) (3).

The response to all this has been calls for greater regulation of BT. But while BT has been dragging its feet in letting other suppliers in on the act, a recent report by the House of Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee is also very critical of the regulator, OFTEL, and the other internet companies (4).

But there is another reason why the fault may not be entirely down to BT. After all, ADSL is just a bodge job, an attempt to use cable that was laid down up to 80 years ago for a purpose that it was never designed. ADSL has known limits. Using it is a bit like trying to cope with more road traffic by building narrower cars rather than building new motorways.

Other companies, like NTL and Telewest, have been laying new fibre-optic cable with much greater capacity. However, they are more concerned with selling cheap phone calls and TV than with internet access, and only reach 50 percent of UK homes at present (5). We enquired about using a cable modem in the spiked office but the Telewest engineer effectively warned us off it, arguing that it was still geared to the home user and not the business.

The current failure to roll out broadband access in the UK is an important barrier to the expansion of the internet, and gives the lie to the New Economy advocates. If we are to see a transformation in the way business is done, it has to start at the level of infrastructure. The trouble with infrastructure is that it is real, not virtual. Real things cost money and require a level of risk-taking, even in an apparently surefire winner like telecoms. Laying new cable to the majority of businesses in Britain would cost around £3billion, rising to £25billion to cover them all (6).

That willingness to take real risks is absent at present. Instead, short-termism drives everything, with companies’ investment plans driven by the whims of the stockmarkets and their own lack of nerve. One minute there is money on tap as speculation drives stock prices and available capital skyward. Next minute there are redundancies and shelved plans as the city institutions get cold feet.

Meanwhile, back at the spiked office, we’ve been forced to revert to our old, slow but reliable internet connection. The strain of screaming at unresponsive web browsers has proved too much. I personally have taken up many of the themes of Confucius by finding ways to clear my mind of rational thought and to relax.

Another pint of lager please, barman.

(1) See here

(2) Quoted in PCPro, May 2001

(3) Financial Times, 3 April 2001

(4) See House of Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee report on local loop unbundling

(5) Evidence to the House of Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee

(6) Figures from Analsys quoted in UK Online: the Broadband Future

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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