INTERNET WATCH

To make more serious inroads into consumer homes, the Internet must become cheaper and faster, and provide a compelling reason for being online

With just 600,000 computers in the UK connected to the Internet, and the rate of growth in steady decline, the greatness of cyberspace still only exists in the minds of over-zealous enthusiasts. Most people consider the Internet too slow, unreliable, difficult, expensive and irrelevant to warrant going out and buying a PC, a modem, a subscription to an access provider and racking up a big phone bill. The cost of accessing the Internet can easily reach 1,500, with annual costs of several hundred pounds.

Before the Internet can make serious inroads to the homes of the British public, it must surmount a number of barriers. The most important of these is the failure so far to provide really relevant content. In this area nobody has yet found the magic formula. It is somewhat sobering to remember that the most popular sites on the Internet currently are directories and searchable databases of content, followed by pornography. Now that most of the early adopters and computer enthusiasts have sated their appetite for the online experience, what will drive the next group of consumers to get connected?

The cost of accessing the Internet is another key hurdle. For most people, multimedia PCs just don’t make it onto the Christmas list – they’re far too expensive. Responding to this, Acorn plans to launch a 330 network computer this autumn, the Netsurfer, dedicated solely to accessing the Internet, with both PC and TV display capability. The ongoing access costs, however, continue to present a further major obstacle to growth. Although one of the key strengths of the Internet is global access at the cost of a local phone call, the local call is still too expensive for most people. Even free access may not help. In the US at the moment, where local calls are free (so you can surf all day at no extra cost) and 45 per cent of homes have a PC, only 11 per cent of homes are connected to the Internet.

Then there is the speed issue, or rather dramatic lack of it. Modems, telephone lines, low computer processing power, too many users and too much graphical content being sent down the wire all conspire to provide a pretty unrewarding experience on sites which, with good access speed, might be highly rewarding. Cable, satellite and wireless telephony companies – primarily in the US – are now addressing the speed issue.

Particularly worth watching is the At Home Network (http://www.home.net/), a joint venture between three of the US’s largest cable companies (TCI, Comcast and Cox), planning to bring high speed Internet access via cable to their subscriber homes by the end of this year.

These issues all relate to the current hurdles facing the Internet. It’s easy to forget that telephone, television and radio all suffered similar technical difficulties and public doubts when they were first introduced. The Internet is nascent and, given the above, has grown remarkably fast over the past 24 months – by 416,000 connections. The technology is also moving quickly, with CD quality sound and low grade video becoming available only within the past few months. For those whose business plans depend on continued rapid growth, the Internet must become cheaper, faster and more relevant. This will only happen when the Internet provides a really compelling reason for being online in the home.

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