It’s always on (sometimes) but is it really broadband?

Despite being a broadband-sceptic, Torin Douglas was persuaded by a cold-caller to make the switch – and it was neither as expensive, nor as difficult, as he feared

I have been converted to broadband. Up to a point. I had set my face against it, for the time being. But then I got one of those dreaded cold sales calls and for once I didn’t put the phone down and, for once, the telesales person had a strong and persuasive argument.

I had nothing against broadband, except the cost. I knew it was up to ten times faster than a normal online connection. I knew it meant you could use your telephone while reading your e-mails and surfing the Net. I knew you could keep it on all the time, instead of having to log on and off constantly.

But none of that struck me as very important. I was already paying &£15.99 a month to AOL for its narrowband service (including calls), which I regarded as good value. The broadband service costs &£27.99, and an extra &£12 a month didn’t seem worth paying for slightly less-jerky film clips and quicker downloads for my sons’ music, particularly since I am now paying almost &£50 a month for my Sky television service.

Nor was I interested in AOL’s “exclusives”: the clips of new movies, the latest music videos, online video travel guides, cartoons, games and downloads and extensive sport highlights.

I had ignored the letters and on-screen messages from AOL and its rivals – BT, Telewest, NTL and others – encouraging me to get up to speed. I’d also rebuffed one cold call from AOL. And then came the call that made me change my mind.

I heard the man out because he said there was a special offer – existing AOL members, for a limited period only, would receive a free modem pack and delivery, worth &£95. All I had to pay was the monthly subscription.

I explained I still didn’t want to pay &£27.99 a month for online access. He pointed out that we could stay on the internet all day without blocking up the phone line. Smugly, I pointed out we had a separate phone line for the computer.

You wouldn’t need it, he said.

A cartoon light bulb materialised above my head. But how much would that save? I asked. About &£10 a month.

I got him to go over the sums again. Suddenly that ten-times faster connection and the less-jerky film clips seemed more attractive (if not the games and cartoons). But other fears came into play. I’d heard the horror stories from early adopters about perfectly good internet connections being sabotaged by the switch to broadband and the providers’ failure to install sufficient lines. And about software that wouldn’t load, and file transfer protocols that didn’t match up.

As someone who once spent many months trying to get Apple (which made the computer), Claris (the software) and Motorola (the modem) to sort out which of them was responsible for my expensive failure to get my much-loved Macintosh to connect to the internet, I wasn’t sure I was ready to risk losing my perfectly acceptable online connection. The words “easy-install pack” didn’t reassure. But, hey, it was a limited offer and I was going to save &£95 on the modem and software. I took the plunge.

The installation was pretty painless. They checked my BT phone line was OK for upgrading, asked about the capacity of my computer and software, and whether I had enough USB ports. Within a fortnight, I’d received the “easy-install” pack, plugged in the modem, followed the on-screen instructions and, amazingly, it all worked.

Or it would have done. The one thing AOL hadn’t bothered to mention (until I got the pack) was the filters and, even then, it appeared in very small letters: “You will need to plug a DSL filter into every wall socket that has analogue devices such as telephones, faxes, modems connected”.

The pack included two filters. I needed four, or I’d have to unplug two of the phones.

I rang the AOL helpline to moan. They claimed I was lucky – most broadband providers didn’t mention the need for filters at all. So I ordered two more via BT and, within two days, I could plug my other phones in again.

The benefits of broadband were soon obvious, if patchy. Logging on and downloading are now much faster, as my sons can testify. Radio stations – both live and “on demand” – are brilliantly clear. And video clips can be stunning – when they work. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include much of the video on the AOL Broadband section, where the promised BBC and Sky clips produce only the Real Player logo and a grey error message: “A general error has occurred. More information is available at the Real Networks Technical Support website”.

That website doesn’t give any practical help, and nor does AOL’s online help service. But I’m not alone in having this problem, as the AOL help messageboard reveals: “AOL can take a walk”; “What does it do for its &£27.99?”; “Crap isn’t it?”. One kind soul suggested logging directly onto the BBC and Sky sites and accessing the material from there. That does work, but it isn’t really the point.

Of course, the cable companies will tell me that AOL and BT’s broadband services, using ADSL, aren’t really broadband at all – only cable can provide the really high speeds. But my new service is still a marked improvement on what I had – when it works.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News


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