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Broadband to be metered in U.K.'s 8mbps future

Pay-as-you-download plans will mean some people get faster connections without paying more.

British broadband providers are on the brink of moving away from billing customers on the basis of connection speeds to a model built around the amount of data downloaded.

The move is likely to reinforce the existing broadband divide because consumers and small businesses in metropolitan areas could end up getting a much faster connection than those in more remote areas without having to pay more.

The catalyst is BT Wholesale's forthcoming trials into methods of increasing the maximum speeds possible over its ADSL network from 2 megabits per second to 8mbps. This testing will begin in April, and U.K. Internet service provider PlusNet has taken the move as a cue to reshape its range of broadband products.

PlusNet is confident that BT's trials--which it is taking part in--will be followed by widespread availability of faster services by the end of this summer. PlusNet announced on Tuesday that starting in April, its broadband customers will be able to get speeds of up to 8mbps "where available."

"Speed will no longer be a factor in how people buy broadband," Marco Potesta, PlusNet marketing director, said Thursday.

PlusNet is the first ISP to announce how BT's speed trials will affect its business model. Previously, the price of its Premier product ranged from 22 pounds a month for a 512 kilobits-per-second connection to 40 pounds per month for a 2mbps line ($42 to $76). But in April, PlusNet will shift to usage-based charging, in which 22 pounds will buy 30 gigabytes of peak-time data per month, plus another 230GB per month during the night. Customers can pay more to get a larger monthly download limit.

Potesta said some of PlusNet's "pay-as-you-go" customers, who pay 15 pounds ($28), plus 1.50 pounds ($2.84) for each gigabytes of data downloaded, will also be able to get speeds of up to 8mbps from April.

However, BT has not yet given any indication of where 8mbps services might be available. It's likely that ADSL's physical restrictions will mean that only people living relatively close to an exchange would be able to get such high speeds.

This would mean that some PlusNet customers could pay the same for a 512kbps or 1mbps connection as for an 8mbps one--good news for surfers in metropolitan areas who are likely to be able to get fast speeds but less appealing for those in rural areas.

Graeme Wearden of ZDNet UK reported from London.