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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
Bringing broadband to the masses
Field of cows
Getting broadband to rural areas is still a challenge
Technology analyst Bill Thompson lays down a challenge to UK Government - offer broadband to everyone in the UK and offer it now.

Things seem to be moving when it comes to broadband.

In the last week or two we've seen cable company NTL announce that it has nearly 700,000 broadband customers, while Tiscali has announced that its broadband satellite service will be available from the summer in 15 European countries.

The Office for Government Computing, the people who buy PCs and net access for the government, has also finally sorted out an agreement with six key broadband suppliers, including Easynet, BT and Telewest, which will make it a lot faster and easier for public sector bodies to get broadband.

More gaps are being plugged by a range of companies trying to get wireless-based broadband off the ground, especially in rural areas without cable.

Universal broadband?

BT van with new company logo
Should BT be forced to roll out broadband?

This comes just days after the Countryside Agency reported that lack of broadband access in rural areas is creating a digital divide between town and country.

Meanwhile, BT has announced that it will lower the threshold for exchanges to qualify to be ADSL-enabled and has set up a website to encourage people to run campaigns to get broadband in their area.

Yet, at the risk of sounding less than grateful for all this hard work, I still think it somewhat ridiculous that e-Minister Stephen Timms, speaking in a parliamentary debate on broadband, could reject calls for high-speed net access to be made part of the telecommunications companies universal service obligation - the list of services that they are obliged to provide to everyone.

The argument that broadband rollout has to be market-led, so that BT can refuse to put ADSL equipment into its exchanges until enough people say they'll buy the service, and NTL and Telewest can decide which of the areas they cover will have broadband support, seems to go unchallenged.

Nobody seems willing to argue for a proper, publicly-funded, rollout of broadband service across the country, preferring instead to leave it to the commercial partners to do what they choose.

Even Ofcom, the new telecoms and media regulator, will be restricted from intervening in the broadband marketplace apart from ensuring fair competition.

None of us ever expected New Labour to privatise the internet, but for a while after 1997 it did look as if the government saw just how important the net had become, both economically and socially.

The first e-envoy, Alex Allan, did a great job promoting the net inside and outside government, and because dial-up net access relied on having a phone line, something which was already available to every home and office in the country, there was little real need to interfere with the market-driven approach to access provision.

Investment needed

Now things are different.

Bill Thompson
It is an investment in infrastructure that is at least as important as spending on roads, rail or airports
Bill Thompson
Thanks to the way that cable television franchises were handed out in the 1980s, we have only two providers and poor coverage outside main towns and cities.

And thanks to BT's lack of money for investment, we have a staggered rollout of ADSL technology to its rural exchanges which will take years to complete.

As a result broadband adoption has been slower than it should have been, because many people who live in the country are unable to get it even if they want it.

This in turn means that provision of broadband-specific sites and content has slowed or even stopped, since the market cannot support it.

What is the point of providing educational materials for broadband-enabled schools when the government admits it will be 2006 before all schools have access?

What is the point of streaming music videos when 30% of UK homes cannot get a fast connection?

If there was ever a case for spending government money on fixing a problem, then this is it.

We need complete broadband coverage - and real broadband, of at least one megabit per second, not the pathetic 500 kilobits that passes as broadband in the ads - and we need it now.

It is an investment in infrastructure that is at least as important as spending on roads, rail or airports.

It will have a massive effect on our economy and on the lives of all of us living in the UK.

Things have got so bad that I don't even mind the fact that most of the cash will go to BT, NTL and Telewest.

We need universal broadband, and we need it now - it's time for the politicians to listen.

Does the UK need universal broadband? Should the government be bearing the cost of this? Send us your comments

Speaking as someone who lives in a thriving rural town, which BT considers totally unsuitable for broadband, I'd welcome the concept of universal broadband provision.

We need it to attract new businesses to the area and to help local entrepreneurs to flourish. We need broadband services to enable more people to work from home and reduce traffic jam misery.

Broadband shouldn't be available to the few, it should be available to all who want it and can pay for it. If BT won't, or can't, supply the services the people of this country want then they should be replaced.
Mike Hodges, UK

Bill Thompson is quite right to point out that current government policy on broadband (that it should be market-led) is liable to hold this country back when compared to the rest of the developed world. But I would like to raise another important issue - cost.

It may be alright for medium to large business users to afford the costs of broadband but to small businesses and poorer consumers, the annual running costs are prohibitive.

This inevitably leads to a digital divide, where the poor (both business and consumer) are excluded from the benefits of a technical infrastructure. In a way, it's no different from the new M6 toll road currently being built - the rich will be able to cruise along in their big gas-guzzlers whilst the rest of us plebs sit fuming in our Ford Escorts.
Geoff, UK

We used to have broadband where we lived, and we were quite happy to have it. Eventually we decided that our house wasn't big enough, and we needed to move, so we moved to a small village just outside the town that we used to live in.

To our dismay we found that even though this village was only around three or four miles from the town, it had no broadband coverage at all. We've been searching online for people that can provide access but we seem to be living in a black-spot, and there aren't enough people in the village to get past the BT Trigger Threshold.
Stephen, United Kingdom

I agree, I live in the country and have had to wait two years until now paying silly money for ISDN until they enabled my exchange. fortunately my exchange "should" be enabled by 16th July.

The government keeps harping on about Britain being the "E-commerce" capital of Europe while conveniently ignoring the fact we are way behind most other European countries in broadband rollout and also refusing to pass legislation or provide funding to encourage value for money fast internet connections for anyone who wants it.
Rob, UK

I agree broadband is an excellent improvement and it makes the internet more useful in many ways. But why do we need universal broadband?

The internet is hardly essential like a telephone or electricity supply, outside of its usefulness for e-mail home banking and the like, it is essentially just an interesting diversion.

Website designers should make more efforts to ensure their websites are dial-up friendly. Otherwise I am sure broadband will end up in the same situation as websites that get bloated and slower with their flashy graphics, advertising and sounds.

Why invest millions of pounds on broadband when it could be spent on useful things like education, health care and sport ?
Philip , England

I live just six miles outside of Cambridge, Silicon Fen, and am unable to any kind of broadband except for satellite.

It is crazy that the government does not fund this so that everyone can get the service and the recent fiasco with selling wireless licenses is also a joke.

The only option I have is the new BT Midband service but at the outrageous price of 35 per month for a restricted 150/75 hours at 128k/64k this is a very poor option compared to ADSL (which I live over 5.5km from an exchange for) or cable (which will never come to us). WAKE UP TONY and sort it out!
Colin Myles, Cambridge, UK

Give me a break. What we need is pupils that are capable of reading and writing correctly, pupils that have an attention span of more than 30 seconds, pupils that to not physically abuse the teachers. Having fast net access is very laudable but useless if these kids can not do the basics.

Schools in Italy do not have anywhere near the UK level of internet access and Italy does not appear to suffer, why? The Italians are much better at learning the basics the rest they will pick up as they go along. I used the internet for the first time in 1996 and had no problems learning how to use it.
Will, UK

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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