Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

By BBC News Online’s Robert Andrews

Wales’s promised digital future was always more elastic band than broadband.

High-speed internet connectivity offers rich interactive entertainment including movies and music for go-slow users everywhere and the government’s announcement of an extra £2.7m for Welsh developments could prove a boon.

But take-up of even conventional access technology has been slow to arrive, with Wales languishing around the foot of the UK connectivity league.

In July 2001, the Wales Information Society – a think group established to push Wales into the digital limelight – warned of the developing “digital divide” between bandwidth-rich urban dwellings and other areas.

Its report, Ubiquitous Broadband Infrastructure for Wales, recommended the Welsh Development Agency and Welsh Assembly stimulate the market for high-speed connectivity to prevent businesses and consumers falling further behind.

Indeed, a recent MORI survey showed just 19% of Welsh people use the internet, below the 33% UK average.

Digital switch

According to the poll, the Welsh are also the slowest to adopt digital television, which is beginning to arrive laden with a bundle of interactive goodies.

Adoption of the new TV services, which can access the internet, is crucial, however, since the government plans to switch off the analogue broadcasting spectrum between 2006 and 2010, frogmarching consumers into the digital future.

High-speed connections are available in the south-east of the country and some rural towns thanks to a series of public sector initiatives.

But Wales is no broadband pace setter – there are only around 160,000 broadband customers across the whole of the UK.

Simply put, broadband technologies allow data to be received faster than via conventional modem internet access, affording high-quality video pictures, streamed music, immersive multimedia and other applications.

In the near future, say analysts, televisions, mobile phones, computers and games consoles will all be able to receive these services and more.

The message is the medium

Some local telephone exchanges have been upgraded to carry compressed digital data at around 500mbps, faster than the quickest conventional 56kbps modem speed.

The technology, ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line), is one broadband medium and mostly available in towns and cities.

BT has come under heavy criticism, however, for not opening up vital portions of the exchanges to competitors keen to roll out the speedy services.

The company currently sells its own ADSL service under the BT Openworld banner but, in September, UK E-commerce Minister Douglas Alexander, called on the company to slash costs in a bid to drive take-up.

ntl is the other major broadband provider. It has had its service primed and ready to hit consumers for some time, but has been forced to join rival Telewest in a joint marketing campaign after a poor response.

In both cases, the Wales Information Society found, the services are limited, hugging close to the south-eastern strip of Welsh coastline.

Content discontent

As director of the @Wales digital media umbrella organisation- a Welsh Development Agency spin-off – Evan Jones is charged with kick-starting and attracting new media and e-commerce start-ups.

But, he says, it is the marketing, rather than the technicalities, which has hindered the discovery of the holy grail.

“Nobody wants broadband,” he says. “They only want the things it can do.

“In Wales, multimedia producers like Eclipse want to be able to send television pictures at high speed around the world, doctors in the Valleys want to exchange x-ray images to diagnose patients, and businessmen want to teleconference.

“These technologies will allow us to enter the knowledge economy – we already have the knowledge.

“Take-up is very low because we don’t have the right products for the market – ADSL is just a sideline to the real issue for businesses.”

The £2.7m earmarked by the Department for Trade and Industry will allow the WDA to run a number of pilots in order to give broadband a broader berth, says Jones.

Bright future

An incubator for digital technology businesses, @Wales is currently in negotiations to bring international broadcasting outfits to Cardiff and an announcement on a superfast networking facility in the city is imminent.

With an established broadcasting base and a firm funding infrastructure in place, the capital, says Jones, is ready to become a major broadband player.

But this week’s sum is just a drop in the ocean.

Another Welsh technology funding representative told BBC News Online the money is unlikely to dent the disappointing digital distribution numbers.

Some analysts estimate equipping a home with a fibre optic line would cost £1,000, or £20bn across the country, and Wales is already hampered by an undulating terrain, unwelcoming to new cabling.

Only a combination of forces will help drag consumers into the digital future.

Until then, the M4 could remain Wales’s only superhighway.