Broadband gamers can expect big changes in how they use their consoles, with the imminent arrival of high-speed network gaming.
This Spring will witness Microsoft’s Xbox Live going head to head with Sony’s PlayStation2 online gaming service, triggering the latest escalation in the battle for teenage pocket money.

Both services will allow broadband internet users to play games online, talk to other players and download current statistics, new levels and characters.

Playing against friends over a fast internet connection is seen by many as the next big thing for both gaming and broadband, which has so far failed to produce a genuine killer application. Market research firm Screen Digest, for example, believes worldwide revenues for online gaming will be worth at least $1bn by 2006.

Microsoft, meanwhile, sees Xbox Live as an opportunity to finally make a dent in Sony’s domination of the console market, and has invested millions in a dedicated network.

As Microsoft and Sony fine-tune their online broadband service for a UK launch, broadband ISPs are busy jockying for position ahead of their arrival. Cable telco Telewest today invited 500 customers to take part in an Xbox Live trial, as part of Microsoft’s pan-European test drive.

Customers taking part will receive a hardware pack including a hub and cabling, allowing them to connect up their console, PC and cable modem. They will also receive an additional IP address and support information. Feedback from the trial will be used to shape the connectivity service prior to the full Xbox Live launch.

Customers can register their interest in the trial here and will need to meet the following requirements:

* 512kbps or 1MB blueyonder broadband internet customer for six months or more

* Own an Xbox console

* Already have successfully applied for an Xbox Live test pack from Microsoft

Participation in the trial is being offered on a first-come-first-served basis, with no pricing details currently in the offing.

Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (SCEE), by contrast, has announced it will begin selling "a broadband gaming pack" at the suggested retail price of £44.95 in time for its UK Springtime launch . The pack will include an ethernet adapter to internet-enable the PlayStation2 console, along with a game and a startup disc.

According to Sony, around a dozen online games will be on offer, including products from third-party developers such as Eidos, Electronic Arts, Take 2 and Capcom, as well as in-house games.

Both Microsoft and Sony will be hoping that in due course avid online gamers will be happy to pay monthly subscriptions to compete against other gamers, further building on an entertainment category that already generates $3bn a year.

Will online console gaming prove to be a killer application for broadband? Vote now in our online poll (top left corner of this web page) or post a comment in our Consumerwatch forum.