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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 June, 2003, 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK
Broadband black spots still rife
By Jane Wakefield
BBC News Online technology staff

There is still a huge disparity between the town and country when it comes to access to fast net services.

Road running through a forest
The road to broadband is a long one for remoter areas of the UK
Despite the fact that two million people in the UK are accessing the net at high-speed, there are still plenty of broadband black spots.

According to figures compiled by telecoms watchdog Oftel and the Countryside Agency, many UK villages are still being bypassed by broadband technologies.

Fast net services via a BT telephone line, a technology called ADSL, account for around half the broadband market but town dwellers are far more likely to have access to such services.

Extending the reach

Just under 90% of urban centres and 52% of suburban centres are wired for ADSL. This compares to only 11% of market towns and 6% of rural villages.

The picture is similarly skewed in favour of city dwellers in the case of cable broadband.

Two-thirds of urban homes and a third of homes in the suburbs are passed by cable, compared to just 11% in market towns and only 1% in rural villages.

BT, which this week connected its millionth ADSL customer, is making efforts to extend the reach of its technology.

It hopes to have 80% coverage across the UK by the end of the year.

Not all BT

There are too many people that don't have access to broadband
DTI spokeswoman
But where it puts its broadband wires will continue to be determined by economics.

"We have hundreds of relatively small exchanges across the country and it's very difficult to find a commercially viable way to broadband enable them, but we're working on it," said a BT spokesman.

But, he said, it should not all be down to BT.

Local loop unbundling - a scheme drawn up by Oftel to open its telephone lines to rivals - is still available to providers.

The scheme has so far not proved to be a huge success, with only two other urban operators offering services.

Early on in the development of broadband technologies, the government rejected suggestions that net services should be subject to universal service obligations as telephone services have been.

Some rural MPs have called on the government to reassess this but the government is sticking to its guns.

"It would be a question of mandating BT and that is something that is at odds with our view of competition driving the market," said a spokeswoman for the Department of Trade and Industry.

"There are too many people that don't have access to broadband," she admitted. "But even if we made it available everywhere it would not necessarily be affordable."

People power

With plenty of towns still without broadband, the time is probably not right for a universal service obligation.

It could be extended to all broadband operators, suggested Ian Fogg, analyst with Jupiter Research but it might not make financial sense.

Local and regional government can really help drive demand with their own requirements for broadband in public places
Ian Fogg, Jupiter Research
"It could put additional costs on providers that haven't got out to even affordable areas yet," he said.

It would also be difficult to decide who should bear the brunt of the cost as the broadband market is split between wholesale and retail providers and cable and ADSL, he said.

Instead people power seems to be the most successful way for remoter locations to join the fast lane for net services in the foreseeable future.

Campaigners have been very successful in persuading BT to set up a broadband registration scheme, which tracks demand and puts broadband in local telephone exchanges when enough people are found.

In other areas, campaigners are forsaking the traditional providers altogether, choosing instead to offer community-based wireless solutions.

According to Mr Fogg, the government still has a key role to play in broadband development in remoter areas.

"Local and regional government can really help drive demand with their own requirements for broadband in public places," he said.

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