GuyClapperton 12 Staff Writer

It's starting, then. In the UK we're going to follow some experiments I've seen in France and start getting fibreoptic connections to the home for superfast broadband. The BBC has notes on where this is starting, but what interests me more is just why they're bothering just yet.

18 months or so ago I went to Paris to have a look at what France Telecom was doing in the broadband area. There were some seriously impressive applications. They had a prototype television from Phillips which had some 3D motion pictures piped into it through fibreoptics. They had a robot guide to the Palace of Versailles, looking around and relaying real-time pictures to us - which we could control remotely - in high definition. It was impressive for the handful of people who can't get to the place and who want better resolution images than a DVD would offer. There was live video conferencing - but this was life sized and because of the mirror tricks they'd used they'd got the eye lines right so you were talking to someone who wasn't looking at your forehead. They were working on a high-definition, 3D lifesized video conferencing. It could be amazing and there's no reason to doubt that it will be.


The initial experiments are being done with fibreoptic, superfast Internet links to the home rather than business. I can't help but wonder what the lucky few in the early trials are going to get for their money. Let's run through those applications again:

* 3D film clips. Well, yes, there is a handful of clips you can watch - but only if you have the $1200 or so television made by Phillips (which is only in prototype for reasons I'll explain by the end of this sentence) and frankly once you've watched the six or so clips, you'll be bored silly. This is why Phillips isn't making the television available yet; there's no content. It would be like travelling back to 1960 and marketing a colour TV in the UK; yes, one day it would be a good idea but not when nobody's making colour programmes (forgive the ignorance, I don't know when the US went into colour).

* Virtual tours: Bags of fun though this was, if you have only a couple of robots touring around somewhere like Buckingham Palace (or the White House if this comes to America) then only a couple of users are going to be able to take control of it for a short period at a time. It's impressive as a proof of concept but the word 'niche' just isn't small enough for the amount of customers who'll be able to use it right away.

* High-def 3D video conferencing: OK, this is nice (or will be) - but it involves taking a room to pieces, fitting mirrors and crazy stuff like that and devoting an entire wall as the screen for video conferencing. I have yet to ask my wife permission to do this because I know perfectly well what the answer will be - we have three bedrooms and no, one of them is not going to become the room where I talk to the other person with this sort of conferencing in the UK, even if we could afford it.

There will of course be answers. There will be video downloads faster than the blink of an eye, or at least there will be when the receiving equipment in the home can match up to the fibre outside it (which is another issue). Streaming will become simpler and for all I know live TV and radio will move to the Internet rather than standard signals, maybe even leapfrogging the country's switchover to digital from analogue in terms of quality.

At the moment, though, none of this has been confirmed, it's just me speculating. All we know is that there's superfast Internet on the way to the UK - and until someone says why that's a useful idea I can imagine a lot of very bemused people when they're told they're getting it.