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Last Updated: Friday, 14 November, 2003, 15:15 GMT
Build it and they may not come
What is going to get us all using broadband? Bill Thompson wishes he knew.

Grand Prix reflected in helmet of pit marshall, AP
Is speed enough to tempt people to try broadband?
The e-minister, Stephen Timms, has added another aspiration to the government's list of 'things to do about the internet'.

No longer content with making sure that everyone has access to the net by 2005, or making the UK the best place in the world for e-commerce, he now wants to ensure that everyone has access to broadband by 2005 too.

Speaking at an e-government conference, Timms didn't actually promise any new money, but called for a partnership with industry to ensure that the whole country, even the most remote rural areas, has access to higher-speed, always-on internet access.

It's a worthy goal, especially when we look around at other countries and the speed with which they are moving from dialup to broadband as the standard way of getting online.

And since broadband homes use the net more often, do more stuff online and would seem to be more likely to use e-commerce and e-government sites, pushing broadband should help the minister achieve his other key target.

Name and shame

The blame for slow adoption of broadband in the UK is often laid at the door of the service providers, and in particular BT and the cable companies.

Although between 80% and 90% of the population has access the geographic coverage is far more patchy. Few rural areas have easy access to broadband except through expensive satellite services that still require a phone line to provide the outgoing connection.

BT certainly deserves some of the criticism levelled at it.

Instead of investing to upgrade all of their exchanges to support ADSL connections, they have created a complex scheme whereby potential customers must pre-register, and the exchange is only upgraded when their self-imposed 'trigger level' is reached.

E-minister Stephen Timms
Timms: Wants everyone within broadband's reach
The cable companies can also be criticised for not extending their networks and cabling up the countryside.

Although it is true that their financial problems were largely self-imposed, the way that cable TV franchises were created and sold during the 1980's made it almost inevitable that only heavily-populated areas would get wired up.

But in the end, BT, ntl and Telewest are all private companies making commercial decisions.

Providing a satellite-based service costs a lot of money, and is still an uncertain market which could simply disappear if other access technologies are developed.

Speed demons

The rural broadband campaigners are doing a great job, and more and more communities are forming co-operatives or other mutual ventures to provide a service that the free market seems unable to deliver, but that is not going to be enough.

The socialist in me would welcome a three-year plan to provide complete broadband coverage to every croft, hamlet and shepherd's cottage in the United Kingdom - including beach huts and campsites - but I'm enough of a realist to know that isn't going to happen.

And there is good evidence that even if we built the infrastructure at vast public expense, the people wouldn't come.

Even where broadband is available, and even where it doesn't cost much more than dialup, rates of uptake have been far lower than anticipated. Adoption is far from universal even in larger cities.

A recent report from the Work Foundation's iSociety team identified some of the problems facing broadband, and they are not just the obvious ones, like cost.

Those who already have a dialup connection are worried that broadband will not work as well, and that the fragile information ecosystem they have developed will simply collapse.

Bill Thompson
Getting people onto broadband isn't just a political imperative - it is rapidly becoming a social one too.
Those with net access at work don't see the point of paying for the same thing at home. And those without any access at all often don't see the point: they could afford to go online, they just choose not to do so.

Add to that fear of hackers, viruses or pornographic spam filling children's inboxes, and there seem to be enough 'microbarriers' in the way of moving to broadband to ensure that even if we made universal provision broadband a legal obligation on the telecoms companies, we'd still see low adoption and a lot of people would stick with dialup or just stay offline at home.

Social standing

The situation is similar to the switch from analogue to digital terrestrial television.

Digital TV promises more channels, better images (though at the moment that is often not delivered as the signal strength is too patchy) and interactive services, and the government would really like to switch off the analogue transmitters and re-use the frequencies, or even sell them off.

Unfortunately, too many of us are happy enough with analogue and can't be bothered to switch. I know, because I'm one of them.

Cable and satellite moved to digital when the companies behind the services realised the advantages and just decided to do it.

But getting everyone with a TV aerial to switch looked like an impossible goal - until the collapse of ITV Digital and the emergence of Freeview.

Now the range of channels, including several from the BBC itself but a lot of commercial ones too, seems to be enough to persuade people to buy a set-top box and move to digital.

Is there a lesson here?

It would be easy to argue that 'content' is all that is needed to persuade people to move to broadband. Give them enough movie trailers, online games, interactive services and - of course downloadable music files - and they will make the switch.

Sadly, iSociety's research seems to show that this simply isn't enough.

Field of lavender, BBC
Ministers want broadband in rural areas too
The technological barriers still remain, and people are less interested in broadband 'content' than in communicating with their friends and family, using the bandwidth to send digital photos rather than watching goal of the week.

Getting people onto broadband isn't just a political imperative - it is rapidly becoming a social one too.

My daughter uses MSN Messenger to keep in touch with her schoolfriends out of school, and the kids who don't have access are excluded from the social networks that emerge.

My son researches his school projects on the web, but if we were using dialup over a shared phone line I'd keep his time online to a minimum and limit his researches.

Those with always-on, fairly fast net access are beginning to see real benefits from their easy access to the net, and I think that eventually everyone else will see what is going on.

Stephen Timms is right to push for 100% broadband coverage, because then anyone who realises the advantages of switching can do so without having to petition BT or found their own rural broadband co-op.


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



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