It may be 13 years since Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, but the average online Briton is still sitting in a jam on the data ring-road rather than zooming into town on the information superhighway. Despite pressure from consumers and numerous promises from the Government, high-speed internet access for all remains a dream. Only about 1% of UK households have broadband access, the majority relying on creaky dial-up with all its attendant drawbacks - slow downloads, dropped connections and no simultaneous phone calls.
Until recently, the high price of domestic broadband has restricted take-up to IT professionals and cyber nerds who really should get out more.
Except in Wales, that is. The Welsh Assembly is keen to kick-start a virtual revolution in the valleys, and last month launched Broadband Wales, a pounds 100 million plan to provide affordable 'fat pipe' access to 310,000 homes and 67,000 businesses by 2005.
Connecting to the internet using a regular dial-up connection and analogue modem is painfully slow - a maximum of 56Kbps. Which means you can eat your lunch, paint your toenails and plan your next holiday while a large file or graphics-heavy web site downloads. Frustrating and, if you're working from home, bad for business. You have to log on anew every time you want to surf or check your e-mail, and your phone line is tied up for as long as you're on the web. So any chance of multi-tasking goes out of the window unless you use your mobile or invest in an extra landline.
By contrast, even a bog-standard broadband connection is about 10 times faster (500Kbps). By making a BROADer BANDwidth of frequencies available, more data is transmitted in a given period of time - analagous to increasing the size of a pipe to get more water through it. Downloading a large file? You barely have enough time to slug some coffee. And broadband is 'always on', so e-mails are delivered instantaneously and news web sites updated in real time. Even better, your PC can cope with fancy multimedia files that take full advantage of content specifically developed for broadband, and your phone line remains unfettered.
The most popular way of delivering broadband is ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line). After dragging its feet for years, BT now offers ADSL from 1,100 exchanges, covering 66% of the population, for less than pounds 30 a month. Where it's unavailable, access can be through cable TV or via satellite. The Broadband Wales initiative will subsidise the cost of satellite connection for small businesses and aims to undercut existing charges to more remote parts of the principality by 30%. On the web, all roads may lead to Wales.