Giving users what they want

The plan by Counties Power, the electricity lines company, to build its own broadband network from scratch is a good move, because the more bandwidth providers the more likely it is that the price for the end user will drop.

The plan by Counties Power, the electricity lines company, to build its own broadband network from scratch is a good move, because the more bandwidth providers the more likely it is that the price for the end user will drop.

But price is not everything. Consumers will be able to choose based on service options. If there are more providers -- Counties will offer connectivity to customers via whichever retailers want to sign up -- you're more likely to find one that's willing to offer you the right service at a price you can live with. If you want to run a lot of peer to peer networking from your home account, you're pretty much out of luck at the moment. But with this kind of competition coming on stream, you'll find a provider that has a service on offer. I like that.

I asked Neil Simmonds, CEO of Counties, if now was a good time to start a telco (through its new subsidiary, Wired Country), given the complete and utter destruction of the telco market in the past year or so.

Telco stocks have collapsed, several major companies have closed and nobody seems able to make any money from the sector beyond the accountants and the lawyers. New services aren't being rolled out as quickly as we'd been led to believe. Take 3G cellphones, for example. Somebody, please. Despite Telecom's claim that it has a 3G network in place today (it's only 2.5G; it's a good 2.5G, but it's not 3G) there are precious few rollouts taking place.

Telcos in Europe have paid too much for spectrum licences, billions of dollars spent for a service nobody has launched. That's affecting the entire market from the telcos themselves through to the equipment providers, which find themselves having to not only compete with each other but with second-hand products of their own as they come on to the market when telcos collapse. How do you sell new routers when Global Crossing's entire fibre network is potentially up for grabs?

Simmonds says now is probably an ideal time to start into the market because of all this, not despite it.

He says the one constant is the demand for broadband from the end user. It's there, it's real and he's going to service it.

Broadband, so we are told, is suffering from a distinct case of the blahs. Users in New Zealand simply aren't signing up in droves. Telecom tells us it has DSL-enabled 75% of the country's exchanges, yet at the moment there are only 50,000 customers, combining business and residential. They just don't want it badly enough.

But at the same time, every user I talk to is clamouring for high-speed internet access, for broadband capability.

Simmonds says the end user has been sorely underestimated by the providers, and I have to agree with him.

Take Telecom's DSL product family, JetStream. When it was first launched, JetStream was touted as being that perfect solution to all your needs -- high-speed internet access, always-on connectivity, ideal for virtual private networks.

Unfortunately, that's what users did with it. They took it to the extreme, testing its limits. Telecom now says JetStream isn't the right solution for VPNs and probably it isn't. Users don't just want faster internet surfing (watch those pages download in three seconds instead of eight), they want the whole broadband package, and putting limits on the kinds of things you can do with it just limits the market itself. Slow take-up? No wonder when you're deciding what users can and can't do with the technology.

I'm not trying to single Telecom out here -- it's just the most obvious target. TelstraClear was in the throes of rolling out its own network -- capable, so the network guy told me at the time, of supplying 10Mbit/s to the desktop. Forget the single digits of DSL, we're talking true broadband here. Where is that network now? It's on the backburner and TelstraClear has declared it would rather wholesale capacity from Telecom.

Users do want broadband. They want it badly. They're even willing to pay for it if only someone would sell it to them. Most of the broadband market doesn't live or work in the three main centres. Most of them don't need a fulltime frame relay style connection, but neither do they want 128kbit/s maximum download speeds. They want to kick the tyres a bit, take it for a spin, see what it'll do. They want to try new things with their broadband connections and that's what we should all want -- that way lies new ideas and new markets. Limiting usage only leads to stagnation and low take-up rates.

Don't underestimate the users.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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