Dial-up on speed

Everyone seems to be talking about Onspeed (www.onspeed.com), the Internet acceleration service from London-based ZGroup, which is hardly surprising when it claims it can transform a bog-standard 56K analog dial-up connection into something providing ‘near broadband’ speed. If you run a high-traffic web server you may have already spotted Onspeed references in your logs, and if you do not then you will have probably spotted its attention-grabbing ads in the national press.

Dial-up on speed

None of this surprises me, because I live in a rural area where the local telephone exchange (three villages away) is not slated to be upgraded to ADSL until about the time you read this column. I’m well aware that dial-up is not dead, despite the impression many IT journos would like to give: the broadband boom is largely confined to densely populated urban areas; those who work and live where broadband is cheap (and increasingly broader) tend to forget they are the lucky exceptions rather than the rule.

The National Statistics Omnibus Survey for April 2005 suggests that of the 12.5 million ‘home’ users of the Internet, 9.5 million use a narrowband connection and 3.5 million have broadband at home. To be sure this is changing fast – and about time too – but do not write off the dial-up user community and their spending power just yet. Even when taking the optimistic view that only 50 per cent of dial-up users are unhappy with their connection speed, that leaves a market of some 4.75 million people for whom a couple of quid a month to accelerate their Internet access to near-broadband speed is money well spent.

I have spoken to Onspeed about how much of this market it is mopped up, and after a year of operation it is been quite successful, with a quarter-of-a-million users in the UK – I suspect this will continue to rise quickly, because the service certainly does appear to be spreading by word of mouth rather than via press reviews. Ironically, Onspeed may run into the problem that it sounds too good to be true, and folk just will not believe the cost/benefit ratio could be as advantageous as the claims.

I will readily admit to being one of those doubters, as although I have known about Onspeed for some time, the snake-oil-style advertising with its claim of broadband speeds only made me mentally file it as just another of those ‘pre-fetch all the links’ caching utilities that never work anywhere near as well as claimed. Over the last few months though, enough readers have asked me if it really works for me to start taking more serious notice – clients have been enquiring about it from a commercial perspective too, and even a certain Dennis Publishing Director has bent my ear about it, so there is obviously a groundswell of interest that demands closer attention.

Let’s start with the technology behind the hype. Onspeed uses an impressive array of no less than nine patented compression methods called Content Sensitive Compression (CSC), which was originally developed by the US military at a cost of more than $300 million. I list these here because they offer some insight into what is happening when Onspeed does its stuff:

(1997) method and apparatus for data encryption/decryption using cellular automata transform.

(2001) method and apparatus for video compression using multistate dynamical predictive systems.

(2002) method and apparatus for digital audio generation and coding using a dynamical system.

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