Supplement leader - Whatever happened to broadband?

It's taken a lot to convince me. All too often I have sat at my home computer, tapping on the desk, stamping on the floor, glaring at the bottom of the web browser and willing it to hurry up "Connecting", "Receiving" or "Looking for the page". Frequently the internet connection gets as bored and annoyed as me and hangs up. Then I have to start all over again. It makes me swear, loudly. It's not like I'm trying to do anything too complicated - just check my e-mails at work, consult a rail timetable (if I wait for it to download, I am likely to miss the train) or get my doctor's telephone number (by the time I find it, a therapist would be more useful). When it disconnects, I shout downstairs: "We really do need broadband." "Then sign up for it," comes the reply. He's annoyed because I kicked him off the computer half an hour ago saying I'd only be five minutes.

So why haven't I signed up? It's not like there isn't a crying need. Partly it's a simple matter of time - my connection's too slow for me to bother filling in the form over the net. Then there's the pessimist in me that is sure we won't be able to get it anyway. Where we live is not exactly remote, but nor is it the sort of place that new technology (or rather the companies trying to sell it) find their way to with any great speed or enthusiasm. We can just about get Channel 5, though not well enough to encourage you to watch it even if you quite wanted to. And although the local supermarket sometimes stocks digital boxes, we can't get digital TV.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle between me and broadband has been my suspicion, deep down, that it probably wouldn't make an awful lot of difference. Now, however, I'm pretty sure it would - I certainly want to give it a try. As Graeme Wearden describes (page vii), by hook or by crook, people are gaining access to broadband, even in the most rural parts of the country, and if Anthony Capstick (page xviii) can get it on the Isle of Skye, I should be able to manage it somehow. The determination of individuals and businesses to get broadband suggests there must be something in it. Indeed, most, if not all, of the contributors to this supplement envisage it could have quite a profound impact on both our daily lives and society in general - for example, in our hospitals and schools (Michael Cross, page xx, and Kathryn Corrick, page xxiii) and on the nation's cultural life (David Cox, page xxv). Richard Reeves and Simon Roberts (pages xii and xv) observe that it will soon be absorbed into our lives just like the telephone before it. We may not notice its effects, but that doesn't mean it has none.

Thinking about it, I would be able (boss permitting) to work from home more and travel less. I'd be richer in time and money. Broadband, it seems, might just do all those wonderful things that the gurus promised the plain-old internet would do. I am already enthusing about what it could do for me. The question is, what could it do for you? Read on to find out.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Another fake