Tech Talk: The new broadband link

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IT’S only 10 years since broadband became widely available in Britain, but already it’s becoming obsolete. The old copper wires that carry the internet from the telephone exchange to our homes are buckling under the weight of our 21st-century data.

Superfast broadband has become the catch-all term for the next generation of connections, which use fibre cables instead of metal ones. Data can travel much more quickly through these – but exactly how quickly depends on who is providing the service and on how much you’re prepared to pay for it.

The average broadband speed today is a little under eight megabits a second, which is fine for most purposes but not for streaming high definition TV pictures into your home. Not many of us need to do this at the moment but five years from now it will be a different story. By then, set-top boxes that connect to the internet as well as an aerial or satellite dish will be as common as DVD players are now.

These new boxes – Lord Sugar’s YouView products among them – attempt to remove the barrier between programmes you have recorded yourself and those on the iPlayer by merging them into the same on-screen programme guide. That means you’re more likely to be accessing shows via broadband, possibly without even realising it.

Early adopters of the new boxes are the ones now driving the take-up of fibre broadband, which ups the ante from eight to 38 or 76 megabits a second, depending how much you pay.

There are two factors governing the speed at which the rest of us migrate to the “new” broadband: the first is price and the second the point at which our data chokes on our existing connections and we start to see “buffering – please wait” messages more often than actual pictures.

Prices have already dropped below the psychologically-important £20-a-month barrier, with the Yorkshire-based supplier Plusnet now charging £16.50 for 38Mpbs and £20 for double that. Plusnet is a subsidiary of BT but undersells its parent by some margin, and its commercial director tells me prices will likely fall further in the long term.

But there are some other considerations: the less you pay the more likely your speeds will be capped at busy times; and to get the best deals you may have to move your phone line and calls to your broadband company. You also need to let an engineer with special equipment into your home. Are you ready for that? Maybe not yet, but it’s my guess you very soon will be.