NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON BT BROADBAND - BT seeks to speed up the net with the launch of broadband. BT's broadband launch has inspired other ISPs to lobby Oftel, Alasdair Reid reports

If BT stated tomorrow that it had found a solution to world famine and could guarantee an end to all human conflict, a chorus of hissing and catcalls would probably greet the announcement.

Perhaps BT only has itself to blame, but it is not always easy to get an objective steer on the doings of this pantomime villain.

As it happens, last week's BT announcement was fairly modest - it told the world that its new high-speed internet product had at last cracked the whole Broadband Britain conundrum.

Conundrum as in the much-promised, much-vaunted revolution that never was - although many are on broadband internet connection systems at work, few of us have been persuaded to trade up at home.

Well, it's going to be easier now that BT has launched its new, no- strings-attached connection, retailing at £27 a month. The reaction, though, was predictable - a fractious mob of internet service provider rivals formed outside the telecoms regulator, Oftel, demanding the right to complain.

The problem many people have with BT is that (to revive the old chestnut of internet-as-transport) sometimes BT acts as the equivalent of Railtrack and sometimes it acts in train-operating-company mode. Many in the marketplace suspect that BT not only holds most of the cards, but keeps many of them up its sleeve.

However, in the case of this new product (called, appropriately enough, BT Broadband), it's acting pretty clearly in its Railtrack type role. Isn't it?

BT Broadband is a no frills DSL (a high-speed connection down your standard phone line, which is connected to the internet the whole time but you can still use the line as a phone line) connection package that anyone can buy and you're not forced to use any of BT's other internet products as your entry portal.

Confusingly it is distinct from BT's Openworld broadband package that requires users to adopt BT as their ISP.

So the new BT package has to be good, surely? Charlie Dobres, the chief executive of i-Level, certainly takes that view.

"I think it's an excellent idea,

he says. "It's just what people have been asking for, a plain vanilla broadband internet connection. It's essentially a trade-up product for people who maybe have broadband at work and a dial-up internet connection at home and who already know what the web is all about. And the fact that it comes from BT means it has familiar branding."

So how will it do? BT is confident that it will help hit long-standing broadband targets - one million connected by spring 2003, two million for the spring after that and five million in 2006.

In its favour, BT believes, are recent research findings suggesting that more than 90 per cent of internet users are fed up with the slow speed of their current service.

Angus Porter, the managing director of BT Retail's consumer division, says that at £27, trading up from narrowband is an economic no-brainer.

"That will certainly be the case if you've been using two phone lines, one for telephony and the other for your dial-up internet connection," Porter points out.

The launch will be backed by a substantial marketing budget, with activity in two phases. The first phase, which launched last week, will attempt to spur content providers into bigger and better things. And after all, for BSkyB to get to a five million-plus mass market it needed some pretty compelling content. BT wants to help replicate that on the net.

For the content providers who take up the BT challenge, the possible reward is that their work will be showcased in future broadband campaigns - notably the second-phase activity planned for autumn 2002.

The centrepiece of a through-the-line campaign in September will be a big-budget corporate branding TV commercial from St Luke's. It will be like the BT "arena

commercial (itself a generic push for the internet), but will be even more spectacular, according to Porter. That campaign will be followed by more specifically product-focused television and press work from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.

So, game on? Broadband Britain for real? At last? Many observers hope so. Ajaz Ahmed, the chairman of AKQA, points out that the rewards could be huge.

"When the installed base is there, the creative opportunities are immense,

Ahmed says. "Broadband will allow agencies to deliver true multimedia and broadcast with technology. When this is combined with quality content and good ideas, it promises to help change the web from a largely static, one-dimensional experience into a richer and more engaging world."

But some observers are yet to be convinced. Nick Suckley, the managing director of Media.com, says: "I don't think anyone knows what BT's role really is in this market - from a purely consumer view I'm confused myself about all the different products you can get from BT alone. And I'm sceptical about whether this market is actually price sensitive yet.

"I think we're still at the early adopter stage where people who really must have broadband aren't all that worried about the price. If price does have a part to play, my guess would be that it won't be until the price goes below £20 (per month)."

However, many disagree - and Dobres hopes the market can see the big picture.

"Rival ISPs worry that this new service will allow people to dump them.

Maybe it will make them work harder and maybe that's no bad thing. You can see why some people in the market are scared, but actually I think it's disappointing that they're seemingly so lacking in confidence,

he concludes.