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Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 12:58 GMT 13:58 UK
Talking up broadband Britain
Cows being fed, AP
Broadband takes a long time to reach some rural areas
If Stephen Timms, MP for East Ham and the new e-minister, does his job well he could well make himself redundant.

Mr Timms, the newly appointed Minister of State for e-Commerce and Competitiveness, is the official electronic e-vangelist and is charged with making it easier for everyone to use the net, interactive TV, mobile phones and almost every other communication technology.

He says, though, that there is no danger of him running out of things to do.

He praises British Telecom's work to identify demand for broadband internet, designated an economic priority by the Prime Minister, but rules out government cash to extend rural coverage.

Mr Timms said that about 20,000 broadband connections are currently being installed every week and the number of British broadband users stands at 600,000.

By the end of the year there should be more than a million of us with fast net links, he said.

Stephen Timms, BBC
The new e-minister Stephen Timms
The government has been criticised for not doing more to force the pace of broadband and to make BT act faster.

"We were certainly slower to get started in the UK compared with other places," Mr Timms told BBC News Online but he added that the wide use of dial-up net services could mean we catch up quicker.

He said that now around two-thirds of the UK population have access to broadband services from competing suppliers.

But he ruled out extending the universal service obligations of telecommunications firms to take broadband to rural areas or the use of government cash to help isolated communities get high speed net links.

Net gains

He praised BT's scheme that lets people in areas where telephone exchanges have not upgraded for broadband register their interest in getting such a service.

If it gets enough interest BT has pledged to upgrade exchanges.

Luton airport departure lounge, Luton Airport
Fast net links are reaching airport lounges
"It shows BT using a bit of imagination to try and work out where they should be and which areas should have priority for getting broadband," he said.

BT's scheme has been criticised because the thresholds it is setting are too high. Some have pointed out that of the application system was applied to the whole country hardly any exchanges would be broadband ready.

Another priority for Mr Timms is the increasing use of the net to deliver government services. A date of 2005 has been set for all government services to be online and Mr Timms said departments and ministries were adopting the net rapidly.

But, he said, it was an open question how long it would take for users of government services to start using the electronic versions.

"It's one thing to make the services available and it's another for users to take up the service," he said, "that's one of the things we will need to focus on."

"There will be some issues about how quickly these services will be taken up," he said.

But along with use comes the potential for abuse, not least by government departments.

Mr Timms said he had received a couple of faxes from constituents worried about the long list of organisations that the government was preparing to give new powers to snoop on citizens.

The list included all local authorities, many government departments and agencies including the Food Standards Agency.

The outcry over the proposals forced the government to withdraw the list until a later date.

Mr Timms said he was worried about the effect of heavy-handed government rules on technology firms.

"We have to strike a balance, " he said, "my concern is that we do not inadvertently impede the development of these technologies and the successful commercial exploitation of them by unwarranted regulatory action."

See also:

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