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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 17:51 GMT
Internet expansion: You asked UK e-envoy Andrew Pinder

  Click here to watch the forum.

  • Click here to read the transcript


    The UK Government has revealed high e-ambitions at its first ever e-conference.

    Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised to give every school, university, hospital and doctors' surgery a high-speed link to the internet. The hope is to make Britain the best place for e-commerce and broadband by 2005.

    But the government has come in for criticism for its slow rollout of broadband and for setting what critics call "unrealistic targets" for both high-speed internet access and getting government services online.

    E-envoy Andrew Pinder has been charged with getting services online and connecting citizens to the internet. He answered your questions in an interactive forum.



    Transcript


    Susanna Reid:

    Welcome to this BBC Interactive forum. I'm Susanna Reid. The Prime Minister has pledged that every school in England will have a broadband link to the net by the end of the 2006. He wants to see the same links in GP surgeries, in hospitals and across the criminal justice system.

    But the Government's come in for criticism for its slow rollout of broadband and for setting unrealistic targets. Andrew Pinder is the UK's e-envoy, charged with getting us all on line and connecting us all to the Net.

    Andrew, thank you very much indeed for joining me. The first question comes from Dr Paul Hatcher, Nutfield, Redhill: What do you think should happen to speed up the rollout of high speed internet access?

    How should we make it swift for everybody?


    Andrew Pinder:

    I think we're trying very hard. If you'd ask me that question a year ago, I'd have been very depressed about it. Broadband take up at that stage was about 5,000 connections a week. Now it's running at 30,000 - 35,000 connections a week. So it's moving much faster in the actual connection take up.

    Local exchanges are also becoming connected much faster. In fact I've just come from our conference where Pierre Danon, who's head of BT Retail, has just been making a statement about BT's plans which are actually pretty ambitious and they're putting out a press release right now. They're talking about at least 80%, possibly 90% of the population be within reach of broad band by 2005, which is a very ambitious target - much bigger than anything they've ever announced before. And they're also talking about a new product called mid band which will run at 128K - about twice the speed of a normal internet narrowband connection, available to about 97% of the population very quickly.

    So I think that we're seeing some encouraging steps there. I'm always impatient, I always want to get it out to areas like my own for example - South Shropshire, a rural area where we don't have broadband and barely have Channel 5 television. So I'm as anxious as anyone. I think there are some encouraging steps - we're moving quite quickly.


    Susanna Reid:

    Andy Gray, Culloden, Scotland: Why is 99.6% of London ADSL enabled and only 8% of the Highlands?

    Linda, Abberton, Essex, UK: I live in a rural area and work mainly from home, so am a heavy user of the Internet and e-mail, but without a broadband connection available (via either ADSL or cable) I am limited. There is a "North/South divide" emerging as a sort of digital divide.

    It just isn't happening quickly enough for many people.


    Andrew Pinder:

    Let me first of all make it clear she's not my customer - I'm government and we're relying on the market to provide these services.

    I think that's the point, that the market needs two things: first of all they need the technical capability to provide the services and there are simply some areas which are so far away from an exchange that they are physically impossible to connect using ADSL.

    Secondly, you need enough people around an exchange who want ADSL for the providers - whether that's BT or other providers - to find it economically worthwhile. Therefore we would encourage people like your e-mailers, to contact their internet service provider and say, we want broadband - go and talk to as many of their friends as possible and all of them say, we want broadband. If you can get a critical mass of people that would make it financially worthwhile, the providers will providers will provide it.


    Susanna Reid:

    As you say, you don't deal with customers, you're part of the Government initiative - the Government's pushing for us all to get online, wants us all to have broadband. Jutlya Kominaska, Oxford says: Isn't the creation of broadband infrastructure something that should be undertaken by the Government?


    Andrew Pinder:

    I don't think so, I think that we believe in trying to get a competitive market. Whenever governments try to provide something to people, we end up being criticised. I think what we should do is create a competitive market and let the suppliers, who can make the judgements that are necessary much better than we can, do this stuff.

    I absolutely agree that we've got a big worry about, what I call the geographic divide - particularly rural areas being out of reach of broadband - we've got to try and do something about that. We in government are trying to do that - we are buying it. We are making sure that we aggregate our procurements so that we can get a critical mass of broadband so that other people can ride on the back of it.

    The Prime Minister's just announced we're going to be connecting all GPs' surgeries and all schools - that's a massive amount of broadband which we'll be buying. We hope that the suppliers will therefore be encouraged to provide it to private individuals as well.


    Newshost:

    Geoff Lane, Manchester: If every GP is to get broadband, what's the Government going to do, is it going force or pay for BT to install broadband services on every exchange which serves a GP practice?


    Andrew Pinder:

    There are a variety of technologies available, in fact they're also a variety of suppliers available. We're not just talking about BT here, we're also talking about the cable providers and other people like Cable and Wireless who are quite capable of providing connections to these places.

    We're not just talking about ADSL, we're also talking about technology such as satellite. There are a variety of satellite products much cheaper than you would expect available for these outlying businesses and GP surgeries.

    The technology is there to get broadband everywhere in the UK, not all of it using cable or ADSL but it's available through satellite.


    Susanna Reid:

    Let's just have a look at BT just for the moment. Let me give you a couple of questions. Simon Joiner, Chesterfield UK: Why has BT been allowed to stifle and monopolise the growth of broadband for so long? We are all aware of the local loop issues of BT as much as we are aware that the Government's done nothing effective to remedy this situation.

    Neil Corbett: Are you investigating BT's anti competitive behaviour?

    Both questions pretty critical of the fact that BT is the big name here.


    Andrew Pinder:

    I think pretty critical but also pretty unaware of what has been happening. I think that we've got a very powerful regulator in David Edmonds at Oftel, who does investigate BT regularly to make sure that they're not being anti-competitive and I don't believe that they are.

    The issue is, we need other telecoms providers with the capital and the incentive to move into this market. Given the state of the telecoms market over the last few years, that's been very difficult for them to do. BT happen to be around - they've got a massive presence, they've got a massive amount of capital which they're spending. I would praise them for that but I would also encourage other people, now that they see this market being created, to come and take advantage of it.

    I'd just like to make the point that as I said we had 5,000 connections a week last year, now we're having 30,000 - 35,000 connections being made, that is a massive amount of broadband being taken up. It's becoming much more commercially viable for other suppliers to come into the market and we want that to happen. We'll make sure that BT doesn't do anti-competitive things to keep them out of the market.

    But you can't criticise someone who's making a success of something just because they're being successful. You've got to try to encourage other people to come in there and take a piece of the market away from them.


    Susanna Reid:

    I think what our e-mailers would say is that they are desperately trying to do exactly what you're encouraging them to do. They're trying to get broadband internet access - they want it but the trouble is that they're having enormous problems. Let me put a couple of further questions to you.

    Dave Reid, Whitwell, Herts: We are trying to get broadband connectivity for our village school. Due to the threshold system imposed by BT on enabling rural exchanges there is little likelihood that this will happen. Surely BT should recognise the educational value of getting broadband into schools?

    Sarah, UK: At the moment I am unable to receive broadband because people have told me even if they do get the threshold of 450 subscribers they need, I may still not receive it as I live too far away from the telephone exchange.

    Mark Tebbutt, Brinscall Lancashire: I have been running a campaign since 26th May to bring affordable broadband to the six villages served by the Brinscall (Lancashire) telephone exchange. I have managed to get 106 registrations of interest via the BT pre-registration scheme. Unfortunately BT has not even set a trigger level at which they would upgrade the Brinscall exchange So what hope does my area have of obtaining affordable broadband in the next 12 to 24 months?

    People seem to be confused about why they can't hop on this bandwagon.


    Andrew Pinder:

    I think there are two basic reasons: reason number one is the law of physics - it's actually quite difficult sometimes to get the physical signal far enough away from an exchange to connect people. That's happens to be true in my own area - in South Shropshire I live far enough away from an exchange that even it was e-enabled, I wouldn't be able to get broadband because I'm too far away. We have to rely on new inventions, new technology coming along to try to overcome those inhibitions. So that's a simple technical issue.

    The second issue is one of economics - this is really one issue that should be addressed to BT and not to me because it's one I push at BT as well. But BT have got to make a profit, they're a commercial organisation and they've got to provide value to their shareholders as well as a charitable service to everybody else. Trying to get BT to pour money into exchanges where there is not a viable group of customers, is very, very difficult indeed. We're going to keep on pressurising them. They're making big steps down this route but there are the laws of economics to take account of.


    Susanna Reid:

    So for all these people in rural areas, extremely frustrated, unable to reach the threshold - what are you saying, that don't just rely on BT there may be other competitors coming up? Or we, as the Government, are putting pressure on BT to enable you as well?


    Andrew Pinder:

    I'm saying all of the above and a bit more too. We're putting great pressure on BT to keep on rolling this stuff out. We're trying to encourage new people to come into the market.

    You're people should also investigate new technologies because there are some surprisingly new and cheap technologies around which will help their businesses. Keep on trying to get that critical mass because I think as technology advances, the critical mass required to e-enable in the exchange will come down - it will become cheaper to do that.

    So there will be mini pieces of technology called mini DSLAMs becoming available, where it won't need 200 or 300 people to sign up, it'll need 50 or 100 people to sign up. That's what we should be pressing for.


    Susanna Reid:

    Where can people find that kind of information out? Is there a Government website which would give people information - advice - if they're having frustrations with BT?


    Andrew Pinder:

    There are plenty of websites around. The DTI have got a website dealing with broadband aggregation, looking at some of the technical issues. There are lots and lots of articles on the Web, if you just go to Google or some other search engine and search on it, you'll find plenty of stuff.

    If you go to BT themselves - given that they are the provider in this area that we are talking about - the question should be really addressed to them. There's a lot of information available there. They've made a large number of statements today which also seem to me to be pretty significant and we should take account of that.


    Susanna Reid:

    Graham Carton, London: BT is making a very strong marketing push for broadband, but does not make the service generally available in rural areas. Why not reverse the incentive and force internet service providers to offer dial-up services at a reduced cost?


    Andrew Pinder:

    I'm not sure that all the other internet service providers would welcome that particular suggestion. Why would we want to do that?


    Susanna Reid:

    Marcus Williamson, UK: Mr Pinder: Why don't you respond to e-mail addressed to you? I've written to you by e-mail many times over the past year and you have not answered. Why are government departments universally so ill-equipped to deal with e-mail enquiries? I've lost track of the number of times that I've had government departments request that I telephone or write a letter rather than sending e-mail.


    Andrew Pinder:

    I am sorry that he hasn't any replies from me. I actually don't remember seeing any of them - I shall be talking to my private secretary about that very shortly.

    I do get hundreds of e-mails and my staff do try to answer them or make sure that somebody gives an answer to them. A lot of them I answer personally myself. I spend an awful lot of time doing my own e-mail - sometimes to the despair of my private office. But I'm sorry that Marcus feels disappointed in this and we'll try to do better next time.


    Susanna Reid:

    Stephen Andreassen, Manchester, UK: Where is the much heralded help for e-entrepreneurs? After almost two years of trying, I have yet to see any tangible benefit of government policy.


    Andrew Pinder:

    I am sorry he's frustrated. I'd absolutely refer him to UK online for business who I think do an awful lot of work in helping businesses get online and he should keep on trying with them. They've got some very good, powerful advisers who give some good advice and actually in many cases some good financial help.


    Susanna Reid:

    You've mentioned a lot of alternatives to BT today - a lot of alternative technologies. Can you just explain what a mini DSLAM is?


    Andrew Pinder:

    Well the piece of technology in an exchange which provides ADSL - so it sits alongside the other exchange equipment - is called a DSLAM. That's just a piece of equipment for pushing signals down a telephone line faster than a normal connection. A mini DSLAM is a smaller version of that and the price of those things is coming down. And that's what offers hope for those people who are on relatively small exchanges. We need those DSLAMs to come through so that it becomes much more economic when there are only a small number of people who want broadband around an exchange for that exchange to be e-enabled.


    Susanna Reid:

    In response to all these frustrations - are you satisfied that we are all dependent on BT exchanges for this service?


    Andrew Pinder:

    I would be delighted if we had lots of other suppliers in the market. I think that we've done an awful lot of work persuading BT to open up their exchanges to allow other people to put their equipment in it. I'm looking forward to seeing other people do precisely that.

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