A narrow path for broadband

Broadband access is the new black for the digerati, with its potent promise of film-standard streaming and full interactivity. Yet, if it is ever to catch on, it will have to fulfil at least two vital requirements. First, a glamorous application to drive it into the living room; and second, in the UK at least, it will need to become a good deal cheaper. Neither condition, unfortunately, will be easy to satisfy, leaving marketers scratching their heads about how to take the Next Big Step.

Compelling new media content is proving a problem. Channel Four’s successful linkage of a reality TV programme, Big Brother, with an unexpurgated Webcast version provided an interesting insight. The experiment will now be taken further by ITV, which will attempt to persuade viewers to pay for Web access to the saltier aspects of Survivor, its own reality TV debut.

Even if that proves popular – and that’s a big “if” – it will provide only a straw in the wind. At best, viewers are likely to experience frustration with “narrowband” technology and fervently wish for something better.

A much more credible driver towards full-blown paying interactivity is the £14bn global video games sector. The addictive quality of computer games, even or perhaps especially among older “children”, is beyond dispute. What could be more attractive to aficionados than broadband access, with its promise not only of immeasurably superior graphics, but the prospect of playing against real opponents anywhere in the world – instead of against a predictable computer?

So it’s no great surprise to find that built-in broadband connectivity forms a major part of Microsoft’s strategic platform, as it readies its Xbox for a £350m assault on the global gaming market. Microsoft rightly insists that the success of this highly precarious launch does not depend, as such, on online connectivity. But given its lateness into the market – a market where Sony’s Playstation 2 reigns supreme and holds most of the software developers in thrall – Xbox will certainly have to provide something spectacular if it is to make significant inroads. Broadband access, rather than superior graphics, is that USP, although Microsoft executives are cautiously talking of a seven-year programme.

Taking a long-term perspective certainly holds some advantages. For example, neither of Xbox’s rivals, Sony and Nintendo, are taking online gaming very seriously. Nintendo seems focused on a younger age group without online ambitions, while Sony has just signed a deal with Telewest which purports to bring “broadband to PS2” – at least for those who use Telewest digital services – but it is a fairly low-key affair so far.

Who knows? Sony and Nintendo may be justified in their conservatism. Online gaming is not a proven model. But what will make it even less certain of success, in the UK at least, are the high prices still being charged for broadband access. That will continue until BT’s unhealthy influence on broadband tariffs is brought to an end – whenever that may be.

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