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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

News: Net firms quizzed on speed limits

Traffic light sculpture, PA
Bosses at six of the UK's top net providers are being asked to explain why consumers do not get the broadband speeds firms advertise.

The six executives are being questioned by Ofcom's Consumer Panel which acts as the regulator's customer champion.

The panel wants consumers to get more information so they are not misled about the speed they sign up for.

The panel also has proposals on what net firms should do to improve how they sell and advertise broadband.

Penalty clause

"We believe that broadband customers are not at the moment getting enough information," said Colette Bowe, chairwoman of the Ofcom Consumer Panel.

In the letter to the net firms, Ms Bowe recognised that there were good technical reasons for the gulf between advertised and actual speeds.

She asked the net firms to find ways to deal with the technical problems so consumers are more informed about the potential broadband speeds in their neighbourhood.

The panel has asked net firms to consider lengthening cooling off periods so customers can test connection speeds before they sign a contract.

It also wants them to think about letting customers terminate a contract early and without penalties if speeds are well below what is advertised.

The panel was set up in 2003 and gives the view of the consumer to Ofcom when the regulator consults on industry issues.

Its approach comes after a series of events that have highlighted the gulf between the net speeds firms claim and what consumers experience.

In mid-September, Computeractive magazine revealed a survey which showed that 62% of the 3,000 readers who carried out speed tests got less than half the top broadband speed advertised by their provider.

In response to the findings Ofcom said it was "aware" of the issue and was investigating what could be done about it.

Research by analyst firm Point Topic has shown that few people will be able to enjoy the top speeds advertised by broadband firms. It estimates that only about half the UK's population will be able to use the web at speeds of 8Mbps.

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News: UK broadband use reaches new high

Mouse and keyboard, Eyewire
Broadband has taken over UK net use in a few short years
Almost nine out of 10 UK net users are connecting via broadband services, official figures reveal.

Information gathered by National Statistics (ONS) for September show that 88.4% of Britons are choosing to use broadband rather than dial-up.

The statistics show that 49.2% of those connections are for services advertised at two megabits per second or faster.

But analysis of the figures suggest the broadband market is static, which could mean tough times for service suppliers.

Tough times

The figure for September is only slightly up on the June total of 86.2%, but indicates a 26% rise over the last 12 months.

The statistics show that broadband has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity among net users since services started to be available and affordable.

As recently as March 2003, ONS reports, 84.7% of people went online via dial-up modems and only 15.3% had broadband.

The statistics also offer a breakdown of the speeds that people have signed up to, and show that the proportion of people on higher speeds - between two and eight megabits per second (Mbps) - has grown. Only 4% of those questioned were using services faster than eight Mbps.

Analysts Point-Topic say there is evidence for a slowdown on broadband take-up as the pool of dial-up users diminishes.

Broadband net firms have relied on converting people from dial-up for most of their growth over the last 12 months, said Tim Johnson, chief analyst at Point-Topic.

Mr Johnson said this could spell tougher times for net firms.

Not only were dial-up users resisting being converted, but households without net access, estimated to number about 10 million, were also declining to sign up in large enough numbers to sustain growth.

"With almost 40% of British households on the wrong side of the digital divide, the social and economic progress of the UK will be stalled unless the great majority of these homes can be brought on to the internet," said Mr Johnson.

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News: 'Super' scanner shows key detail

Skull scan

A new scanner has been unveiled which can produce 3D body images of unprecedented clarity while reducing radiation by as much as 80%.

The new 256-slice CT machine takes large numbers of X-ray pictures, and combines them using computer technology to produce the final detailed images.

It also generates images in a fraction of the time of other scanners: a full body scan takes less than a minute.

The Philips machine was unveiled at the Radiological Society of North America.

Because the images are 3D they can be rotated and viewed from different directions - giving doctors the greatest possible help in looking for signs of abnormalities or disease.

All images also can be accessed on any computer in a hospital or by colleagues and researchers remotely, to make it easier for the whole team to share information.

The heart in fine detail

The scan is much quicker than current technology, as the machine's X-ray emitting gantry - the giant ring-shaped part that surrounds the patient - can rotate four times in a single second - 22% faster than current systems.

The cost of the equipment - known as the Brilliance CT - is unclear.

At present, it is only being used in one hospital: the Metro Health medical centre in Cleveland, Ohio, which has been using it for the past month.

"This scanner allows radiologists to produce high quality images and is also designed to reduce patients' exposure to X-rays," Steve Rusckowski, chief executive of Philips Medical Systems, said.

"It is so powerful it can capture an image of the entire heart in just two beats."

The record company EMI was behind the first commercially viable CT scanner, which was invented by Sir Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield in Hayes, United Kingdom at the company's laboratories and unveiled in 1972.

At the same time, Allan McLeod Cormack of Tufts University independently invented a similar machine, and the two men shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

"This is a quantum shift from the first CT scanners as it gives a lot more detail," says Dr Keith Prowse, Chairman of the British Lung Foundation.

"It seems to be another step beyond what we were previously able to do. The high resolution enables you to see smaller things in both the lungs and the airways and then decide whether there is anything there and how best to get at it.

"In the case of cancer, it will help us see how far it has spread. It will also help us pick up new patterns of abnormality. It promises to be a significant advance."

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News: UK net numbering project starts

Telephone switchboard, Eyewire
The Enum project will first link up net telephone networks
Staying in touch via phone or web could soon get easier as work starts on a way to unite the internet and the telephone network.

When finished the UK's national Enum directory will make looking up net phone numbers like finding a website.

Initially the directory will target the UK's net telephony networks so calls can cross between them more easily.

But the directories are expected to one day hold details of the many different ways almost anyone can be contacted.

Call and connect

Enum, or Telephone Number Mapping, aims to do for phone numbers of any kind what the Domain Name System did for the World Wide Web.

The DNS is a giant distributed directory your computer consults when it does not know the location of a website you want to visit.

The UK's Enum directory will be run by Nominet - which administers the .uk internet domain.

Jay Daley, technology director at Nominet, said the directory would be populated with numbers for the UK's voice over IP (voip) networks that route telephone calls through the net.

Although voip was widely used in business, said Mr Daley, it was typically only used within firms rather than between them.

Candlestick phone, Eyewire
The directory will help net callers find each other more easily
Before now, he said, it was not easy for the various voip servers of companies or net telephony firms to find each other and connect callers between them.

"That bit of magic is missing," he said. "There's no way for one to find another if it only has a telephone number."

While interconnect agreements did exist between voip suppliers, said Mr Daley, they were ad hoc agreements. Most relied on a caller knowing which voip supplier someone used so they could add extra digits before dialling.

In contrast to that stood the directory systems behind websites and e-mail which will get a person to a website or deliver a message by looking up the domain or address.

Enum, he said, would try to do the same for telephone numbers.

Having an easy way for those networks to interconnect could prompt a boom in net telephony, said Mr Daley adding that the situation was comparable to the moment when mobile phone operators let text messages travel between their networks.

He said: "It's going to change the business model for communication providers quite seriously."

Mr Daley said many other nations, such as Germany, Australia and Ireland, had already started work on their national Enum directories.

Work had also begun to get hi-tech firms, such as voip hardware makers, net service providers and handset makers, to include the Enum technology in their products.

Once those global Enum directories were in place, he said, many other applications were likely to spring up.

Although it was hard to predict, he said, the directories could one day list all the ways that someone can be contacted so calls, e-mails or other messages always get through.

But, said Mr Daley, work would have to be done to ensure that personal privacy is preserved.

"Do I really want people to find out which of my devices I am on at the moment?" he asked "Or which IP address I'm on at any one time?"

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News: UK 'slow' on ultra-fast internet

Mouse and keyboard, Eyewire
Ministers say broadband is not fast enough
Broadband industry leaders are to meet ministers to discuss how to stop the UK dropping into the internet "slow lane".

More than half of all UK homes now have a broadband connection, at an average speed of four megabits a second (Mbps).

But the broadband summit will hear other countries are moving more quickly to build ultra-fast networks that can deliver speeds of as much as 100 Mbps.

Ministers say ultra-fast broadband will be a key to helping UK businesses "innovate, grow and create wealth".

Average speed

"We need to be discussing how we can put this new network into place, because delay could be a barrier to the future success of our economy," said Stephen Timms, minister for competitiveness.

The broadband summit will discuss how industry, government and regulators can make sure Britain gets the next-generation network that will be needed as services like internet video take off.

Copper lines

BT - Britain's biggest broadband provider - has already warned that it may struggle to pay for an ultra-fast network.

But cable company Virgin says it will deliver 50 Mbps broadband by the end of next year - more than twice the maximum speed it currently offers.

Virgin's 50 Mbps service will be available to more than 70% of the 12.5m homes its cable network covers by the end of 2008, the firm said.

The company is not digging up streets or laying new fibre to homes, but is installing new equipment at the hubs and bundling together spare channels on the line.

Most of Britain's broadband access is delivered through existing copper telephone lines, which were never designed to deliver ultra-fast broadband.

BT is due to roll out ADSL2+ in the coming years but speeds will be limited to a maximum of 24 Mbps.

In the US, companies such as Verizon have invested billions of dollars in fibre to the home, providing hundreds of video channels and high-speed broadband.

BT is investing £10bn in speeding up the existing network, which includes some fibre, and will be able to deliver download speeds of 24 Mbps by 2011.

Graph showing broadband speeds
Speeds advertised are often the maximum possible, coverage may not be nationwide

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