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How broadband made internet central to our lives

THE internet turned 20 last month. It has changed our lives for the better – and worse – in many, many ways since then.

The real growth of the web, however, didn't come in the first half of its life. It has come since 2002, after the "Internet Bubble" burst and we were told the net was a passing fad.

That was before broadband came into people's homes, however. That single change turned the net from something we looked at, to something we take part in and made the computer the centre of our daily lives.

It made it possible for people to watch videos and download music online. Up to then, dial-up internet meant a user had to deal with intolerably slow download speeds, if they could get online at all. This meant that the 'net was good only for reading text.

Dial-up also meant spending hours online was a no-no. In most cases you had to give up access to your house phone when you logged on, and in the 1990s, that meant being incommunicado – mobiles were an optional extra at best.

Blogs existed before then but as Blogger's software became ubiquitous, suddenly anybody could have their own website, whether they knew about computer code or not.

Microsoft dominated the computer industry from almost start to finish. Its Internet Explorer browser was used by 95pc of the web's users.

And the number of web users up to then was tiny. In 2001 about 570 million people were online – about 10pc of the world's population and the overwhelming majority of those were in the West.

Up to 2002, few "old" businesses had been put out of existence by web-based rivals. That changed rapidly after that. Today, the web has changed utterly.

The so-called "Browser Wars" (and EU intervention) has dramatically cut Internet Explorer's dominance. Today, less than 40pc of people online use IE Firefox and Google's Chrome are both challenging the Microsoft browser. The "Web 2.0" phenomenon means practically everybody on the web has their own presence.

YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, even Bebo and MySpace, have allowed us to colonise the web in a way that was not possible 10 years ago. In 2002 the networking site Friendster had 3 million users. Today Facebook alone has more than 1 billion.

It is broadband that has changed everything, however. A song that took 10 minutes to download in 2002 can be had in seconds now. And that has affected the "real world" in various ways. Blockbuster was the biggest DVD rental service in the world. In 2000 it turned down the chance to buy a small start-up called Netflix for about $50m. Today, Netflix has revenues of more than $3bn, Blockbuster is out of business.

Without fast Broadband, the movie streaming that Netflix makes its money from would not have been possible.

It seems there is little the internet can't do – a decade ago it was a much, much different place.

Irish Independent