Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

SURVEY - CREATIVE BUSINESS: More dynamic broadband content

By Kate Bulkley

Financial Times

Aug 7, 2001

The problem with broadband is the old one of the chicken and the egg. The rollout of high-speed, always-on internet connections is slow because there is little to make it compelling beyond speeding up your e-mail. But the amount of content best viewed at higher speed is limited because there are not enough broadband users around to underwrite the cost. So which will come first: the content or the consumers?

In an attempt to tackle this conundrum and secure a place in a growing business, Telewest and NTL, the UK's biggest cable companies, are in the early stages of developing a new kind of home page to encourage users to appreciate - and pay for - the more dynamic broadband content.

Other platform operators and software companies are equally committed to the difficult task of designing a next-generation home page although the term "home page" barely describes what the broadband equivalent is expected to be. Most developers call it a broadband browser or portal. It will aim to marry broadband's speed with video and audio content, creating a dynamic, TV-like look to attract users, but even more crucially, to encourage them to open their wallets.

"It makes sense to work together on a broadband portal because it gives us scale," says David Docherty, Telewest's head of broadband content. Together Telewest and NTL count about 90,000 cable broadband connections, rather more than BT has connected up to its ADSL broadband service, delivered down telephone wires.

All told, less than 1 per cent of UK homes (250,000) will have a broadband connection by year-end, the same as in France, Spain and Italy, according to consultancy Jupiter MMXI. But the future looks brighter, with 3.7m broadband connections forecast in the UK by 2005. To help seed this growth, NTL and Telewest have just launched their first joint marketing campaign under the banner "Building Broadband Britain".

"I think this is great opportunity for us," says Stephen Carter, managing director of NTL UK and Ireland. "For the first time for cable we are not coming into a market after someone else has defined it. We followed BT into telephony. We followed BSkyB into television. We don't have to follow anyone into broadband."

The threat to Telewest and NTL is that their cable lines will only provide commodity services such as telephone and multichannel television. So broadband is a terrain where cable must aim to win the day against its bitter rivals, Sky and BT. As part of this campaign, these two want the broadband browser to become a shop window where consumers buy anti-virus software or the MP3 song by Madonna or to play the latest Tomb Raider game.

Some industry visionaries go further, saying that eventually, a broadband browser should allow all of these applications to work together. "The minute you get websites that look less static, and you've got millions of them out there, then the existing browsers don't cut it," says Ovid Santoro, chief executive of the UK-based broadband developer Surfcast.

"The `killer app' in broadband browsers is when a change in the price of my onscreen stock portfolio sends an automatic e-mail to my broker. It's faster speeds, but it's also the ability get your applications to work together."

In Sweden, 40,000 broadband subscribers connect through a browser called Brikks that has been developed by Swedish web consultancy Framfab and used on a showcase broadband system part-owned by NTL, called B2 Bredband. The Brikks browser presents a sort of desktop mosaic that works like an Excel spreadsheet and can be customised by the user.

But as browser developers such as Surfcast and Brikks try to open up the new, faster broadband world to consumers, Telewest seems eager to ensure that any web spending takes place within its own environment. This, of course, is not new, and is exactly what AOL, Yahoo! and MSN try to do with their narrowband portals.

Jupiter analyst Dan Stevenson explains: "The access providers want to keep people in their walled gardens because they can make money off them. But people who sign up for broadband are savvy internet users who have probably been on the web for years. They aren't going to buy the sales pitch of the access providers."

Telewest will relaunch its Blueyonder broadband service this autumn in a format that will allow limited customisation of the "home page", but it rejects the notion that it is creating a walled garden. It says users will still be able to click out of its service easily and go on to the web.

The cable companies see the clear economic benefit of working together on broadband and they also know that the required content must favour games, music, software downloading, internet telephony and streamed radio as well as web searches, e-mail and chat.

What the cable operators have still to agree on is exactly what the front end of this service will look - a new-style web browser, a walled-garden type of portal or a home page that looks more like TV.

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