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Last Updated: Friday, 17 October, 2003, 11:59 GMT 12:59 UK
Making rural broadband a reality
Getting broadband net in towns and cities is easy, but now we need to cover the countryside, says technology analyst Bill Thompson.

Computer cables
Broadband has to reach more areas of the country
When it comes to internet access, I think I am pretty lucky.

I live in the centre of Cambridge and have an ADSL-enabled BT exchange round the corner and NTL's cable running down the street outside.

There are also a number of cafés with wireless access to sit and surf in while I enjoy an expensive cup of brownish liquid.

Life is a lot harder for those who live outside the larger towns though.

Even though about 85% of the population are in reach of a broadband internet connection of some sort, there are still large parts of the countryside without any way to get an always on, reasonably fast and reasonably priced connection.

This is one of the big themes at the forthcoming conference of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, the government-supported organisation of the great and good in the industry.

They will be discussing issues like "the consumer value proposition" and "the business value proposition".

In my experience, they are pretty clued-up about what is going on once they get away from the marketing speak and MBA jargon.

The session on "the community value of broadband" looks especially promising.

Take-up vs access

In urban areas, where ADSL or cable modem connections are already available, the real problem seems to be take-up.

Despite, or perhaps because of, BT's TV commercials featuring dragons escaping from "the broadband pipe" and billboards telling us that AOL broadband is what we need, ordinary users still find them offers they can resist.

Those with dial-up, like my dad, are unwilling to take the risk that installing broadband might make everything else on their computer stop working.

Bill Thompson
The internet will not become embedded in our daily lives as a provider of information, services and support unless everyone who needs one has a fast connection available whenever their computer is on
Bill Thompson

Others think that the extra £15 per month is simply not worth it for an uncertain benefit.

Some just do not see the need for any sort of internet connection in their lives.

However, in rural areas the real issue is access, not take-up.

Small communities are cut off from broadband, even though individuals, business and public services would use it if it was available.

But instead of sitting back with their dial-up links, many are trying to find ways to solve the problems for themselves.

The Rural Broadband Brainstorming Group has a list of over 40 projects on its website.

On Wednesday Stephen Timms, the DTI Minister for e-commerce, spoke at RuralNet 2003, the group working for people in rural areas who are socially excluded.

Mr Timms announced government support for the Community Broadband Network, a new group which will assist self-help projects.

He also voiced support for community-owned social enterprises which provide broadband service and are driven by need, rather than the desire for profit.

One example is Cybermoor, a community co-operative in the Cumbrian town of Alston which has over 300 homes and businesses connected over a wireless network.

The co-operative was established to take over when funding for a successful pilot project ended.

Part of the reason for Cybermoor's success is that it is priced the same as dial-up for home users, £15, and so one of the main factors that seems to block broadband adoption is not there.

Another may be that it is a community run and owned project, so customers are more involved.

Community value

This community aspect is important.

Wireless broadband in rural areas is not necessarily going to be a money-spinner, and it would be unwise to leave it to the market to provide this key public service.

Invisible Networks, a wireless provider based near Cambridge, went bust earlier this month, although customers are still getting service and their assets have been acquired by another company, Mesh Broadband.

Country road
The road to broadband is a long one for remoter areas of the UK

But their experience clearly shows that this is not a friendly market waiting to be exploited by early adopters.

Even Cybermoor has had problems, not least because so many of the computers on its network have been infected by worms and viruses that they are making every customer clean their system if they want to remain connected.

A profit-oriented business could well fail as a result of this sort of problem, but a community-supported co-operative is more resilient.

The number of projects is inspiring, but there are still things that could be done to make the roll-out of wireless broadband easier.

The power restrictions on wi-fi base stations, vital in built-up areas, could be relaxed.

Other parts of the radio spectrum could be made available, allowing alternatives to be developed.

Public sector bodies like schools, libraries and even council offices could be allowed to share their fixed-line bandwidth with wireless community networks.

And of course, Linda Snell could start a wireless service in Ambridge and make the whole country aware of the issue.

All of these would help, and they do not involve subsidising the market and distorting its development, just removing barriers which serve no real purpose.

The internet will not become embedded in our daily lives as a provider of information, services and support unless everyone who needs one has a fast connection available whenever their computer is on.

Broadband is the only game in town for providing that sort of service, so we need to support and encourage it.

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

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