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Tuesday, 26 February, 2002, 09:10 GMT
Understanding broadband
Much has been said about the advent of broadband services and how they will change our lives. BBC News Online cuts through the jargon to explain why it matters.

Essentially, the broadband revolution is about a huge increase in the range of services that can be offered via the internet and digital television. It promises a new age in entertainment and communications, as well as a major boost for e-commerce.

What is broadband?

Broadband benefits
24-hour internet connection
Video on demand
Fast interactive digital television
Fast interactive home shopping
Video e-mail
Video conferencing
Fast downloading of games, music and software
It is the name given to systems designed for high-speed transmission of huge amounts of electronic data.

Think of a pipe carrying water. If you want to get more water down the pipe, and send it faster, you need a broader pipe.

In the case of electronic data, the same result can be achieved using advanced cable technology, radio frequency transmissions or satellite systems.

With cables, high-capacity optical fibre networks may be used (as in cable television). Or, in the case of existing phone networks, a technique called multiplexing allows more information to be carried by the old copper wires.

Numerous signals are combined into one complex signal for transmission down the wires, then separated out again at the destination.

This might be compared to the way the ear can pick out each instrument when listening to music, or an individual voice in the thick of a noisy party.

What reaches the ear is a complex signal containing all the sounds lumped together. The brain then separates them out.

What about ADSL?

ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) is the specific technology for making broadband transmissions on the existing telephone networks.

Some 40 times faster than 56k modems, ADSL has been available in many parts of the US since 1998.

Most customers, though, are likely to sign up to a slower retail version of the ADSL service, at best up to 10 times faster than 56k modems.

BT is rolling out a nationwide UK service, but it is not available everywhere yet. Rural areas are especially unlikely to be able to get the service. In East Yorkshire, Kingston Communications is offering an ADSL service as well.

Telewest and NTL are also rolling out broadband services via their cable networks, and internet service providers like Freeserve and AOL have launched their own ADSL services (using the BT network, though).

However, to date only about 150,000 homes get high-speed access via ADSL.

Why does broadband matter?

Potentially, unmetered broadband internet access will change the way we use both the internet and television.

With the internet, there will be no need to log on and off, download times will be lightning fast and fears over the cost of the call will be removed.

This means a vast range of services offered on the net would be instantly available - films, music and games, along with local information such as traffic and weather reports.

Normal phone calls would also be made without having to disconnect internet access, and video e-mail and video conferencing would become cheap and easy.

The revolution in entertainment this would bring would be closely related to television use.

For example, downloaded films would not have to be viewed on a PC and the viewer would be able to pause and rewind in the same way as with a video-cassette recorder.

Also, interactive television services, such as home shopping, would become fast and sophisticated, and some retail analysts have predicted that online retailing via TVs - or "t-commerce" - could rapidly overtake PC-based shopping.

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See also:

04 Feb 02 | Business
14 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
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