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Wednesday, 14 August, 2002, 08:19 GMT 09:19 UK
Broadband hope for small towns
Ely cathedral
Ely has a cathedral but no ADSL over phone lines
BT has come up with a way of supplying broadband to rural areas in the UK at a fraction of the usual cost.

A trial of 'broadband-in-a-box' could mean that areas with small populations can join in the broadband revolution that has so far eluded them.

Getting broadband to areas outside of main towns and cities has become the hottest potato surrounding ADSL - high-speed access via the telephone line.

BT has always insisted it was only economically viable to roll out broadband to areas with between 200 and 400 customers due to the cost of ADSL-enabling a telephone exchange, which it estimates at between a quarter and half a million pounds.

Mini-broadband

It is now planning to trial a scaled-down version of the standard ADSL equipment which will mean as few as 16 customers can be connected to the technology.

Campaign group Broadband4Britain has always disputed BT's figures, claiming that ADSL can be rolled out to exchanges with just 50 customers.

The news is a vindication of its stance said campaign manager Andy Williams, although he is not convinced BT is doing anything new.

"My feeling is that this is not so much to do with new technology, but a more pragmatic roll-out of existing technology combined with a more aggressive market stance," he said.


It is quite a big change and could mean that small towns at last get broadband

Andrew Ferguson, ADSLGuide
One of the reasons the technology will be cheaper is because it will run over existing cable rather than new fibre which is usually used to connect telephone exchanges to the central network, suggested Andrew Ferguson of ADSLGuide, a website offering advice on broadband.

BT is asking sponsors to contribute 7,000 to the trial, although the telecoms giant was unable to say what the total cost of enabling the exchanges would be.

So far seven sponsors have come forward, including the Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the East of England Development Agency and the New Forest Business Partnership.

Big break?

The sponsors will team up with an internet service provider of their choice.

After the six month trial, BT will decide whether to permanently ADSL-enable the exchange involved in the experiment.

However it has given no indication of how much money it would expect sponsors to pay after the trial period.

"We will see how it develops and how the business model works out but it is important to stress that at this time it is just a trial," said a spokesman for BT.

Mr Ferguson said the trial could be the breakthrough rural residents have been waiting for.

"It is quite a big change and could mean that small towns at last get broadband," he said.

But it is far too early to say if it will outlast the trial.

"It could be something that disappears after six months if BT decides it isn't worth it."

Mr Ferguson estimated that initial services could cost up to 30 although some of the sponsors may choose to offer it free in order to get users interested in the technology.


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