I've been eulogising about what technology can do for indi-viduals and businesses ever since I can remember. Yet only recently, with the roll-out of broadband, have I thought that things could get really exciting. You will have read that sort of thing before, during the dotcom boom - but the bust might never have happened if broadband had been big back then.
In those early years, using the internet was a frustrating experience. It was agonising to wait while the web page you wanted to look at inched its way across the screen. Using secure connections - to bank online, for example - was enough to drive you mad. But combined with broadband, the net is a very different proposition. All of a sudden it becomes usable. With broadband, you have a permanent connection to the internet for a fixed charge. It allows you to send and receive large amounts of content. Many different types of technology can be pushed over it, including the telephone, radio, TV, games and office networks, and what makes it really useful is its interactivity.
The past three years have been awful for technology companies, but great for consumers, as the cost of both equipment and internet services has fallen. Take domain names: it is now possible to buy one for less than £5 a year. So instead of having business cards printed, just quote your website - it's a lot cheaper.
Broadband is changing the way we work, rest and play. It certainly encourages us to be more mobile. With the new type of 3G mobile phones becoming widely available this year, broadband will be available in as many different ways as you want it.
The railway company GNER is making it available on a number of trains running on the east coast line from London's Kings Cross. This will enable anyone with a wireless laptop (standard for recent models or available as a £50 gismo) to be connected to their office network as though they were sitting at their desks. As commuting is turned into work time, the effects will be far-reaching. People will be prepared to travel greater distances to work, which will have a knock-on effect on all sorts of things, from house prices to demand for school places. Before long, the same technology will be available while flying, sitting on a bus or travelling in a car. For anyone out on the road, whether for work or transporting noisy children, broadband will transform how the journey is used.
On the other hand, this technology can be used to avoid travel altogether, with obvious benefits for the environment. Videoconferencing is central to this. In the past, the pictures were jerky because there was simply not enough capacity on the line to transmit the pictures clearly. But broadband changes all that. At www.broadbandelaboratory.co.uk, a publicly funded initiative to encourage businesses to adopt broadband, the most popular demonstration to date has been videoconferencing, with many visitors expressing the desire to adopt the technology to improve communication between the home and the office.
There are many other possibilities. Virtual Private Networking (VPN) is a method of setting up in effect free leased lines over an existing broadband connection. The appeal of this is that there is no charge each time a virtual line is created connecting two points together - usually a person to their office network, so they can send and receive e-mails as if they were in the office. There is therefore no need to have home and office e-mail addresses, just a personal and a business one. It is also possible to route telephone calls over the same connection using a technology called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which can significantly reduce costs. Phones that can use this method of calling are already available in shops for around £30.
The exciting thing about virtual private networks is that, once the link is set up, it is very easy to add other functions. A great trick is to connect a telephone at home so that it rings when the phones ring in the office. Add a plasma screen and speakers, and you can do almost everything at home that you could do in the office. All this technology could make real the government rhetoric about home, flexible and part-time working and the work/life balance. The danger is that the always-on technology makes us always there, and we never really get away from work. But you can always use the off button.
Access to this technology is arguably most important, but also most difficult, for those who live in remote areas. One answer is satellite broadband, which can be deployed almost anywhere. My family's croft on the Isle of Skye was recently fitted out with satellite broadband and is now being used as a retreat for writers and photographers, who can work in peace and quiet but still send their work within seconds to London or New York.
An always-on connection to the internet at home allows for all sorts of interesting developments, not just for our working life. In the same way that modern cars are plugged into the garage computer when taken in for a service, it will be possible for household appliances to be inspected remotely. Plug your cooker into the broadband connection and an engineer will be able to identify the faulty part. You will also be able to switch on the central heating by phone on the way back from the office, or give your apartment in Spain an airing.
But perhaps the most engaging use of broadband is for family and friends, allowing them to pop in and out of each other's lives without turning up on the doorstep. With Windows Messenger, for example, each time someone signs in to the service, a window pops up, possibly with live video of the person. Now people on opposite sides of the world can see and hear each other every day, if they wish, for the cost of a simple home connection. Webcams and broadband were made for each other.
Last year, I met a man who had a particularly inspiring broadband story to tell. He'd been involved in a very serious road accident and the surgeons had done all they could for him. He was unable to walk and was told that the best he could hope for was a 50:50 chance of his leg being saved. Not prepared to give up, he went on the internet and sought out some physiotherapy sites that offered interactive exercises to train the muscles in his damaged leg.
His existing internet connection was too slow, so he upgraded to broadband. With the faster connection, he was able to access all the best physiotherapy sites around the world and to take part in the interactive training. The result was that he walked again. His story is a striking example of the way in which broadband can change your life.