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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
Broadband sets sights on speed
By Jane Wakefield
BBC News Online technology reporter

High-speed net access will soon be pretty much universally available in the UK, now that BT is to offer broadband to more than 99% of the population.

Woman using a computer
Will everyone be equal in new broadband landscape?
The telecoms giant is now hoping to persuade at least five million - one in four households - to get broadband via its networks by 2006.

But universal access does not necessarily mean that everyone will get the same quality of service.

As the old issue of not being able to get hold of broadband recedes, a new divide between a fast connection in towns and a slower one in remoter areas could replace it.

People in remote areas will not be able to take advantage of the faster speed broadband being offered by cable firms such as Telewest.

And there are technical restraints on ADSL which gets slower the further away from the exchange it has to reach.

"Everyone's internet experience will improve but people need to understand that over the next five years rural users will be disadvantaged in the quality of broadband compared to someone living in say, London or Manchester," said Ian Fogg, analyst with research firm Jupiter.

Faster bits

BT is looking at stretching the reach of its existing ADSL service to get to as many people as possible. But there are limits on how far it can go and still maintain a high quality.

Making it available to all but around 600,000 people is a welcome move but it is not necessarily enough, said Andrew Ferguson, a writer for the website ADSLGuide.

"Half a megabit isn't true broadband. BT's latest move is only a step towards broadband for all. It will create a universal baseline and get everyone off dial-up but there is a move towards higher speed services," he said.

Mr Ferguson believes BT is considering offering a one megabit connection as its standard service and the telco is looking at stretching the reach of this product so as not to create a new digital divide.

But to reach the super-fast speeds already available in other parts of the world, there will have to be more of a sea-change at BT.

"It is technically possible to get 10 or 20 megabits to the home but it would mean massive changes and expense for BT in terms of the laying of fibre," said Mr Ferguson.

Trigger happy

For those living in broadband-free areas the news they are likely to get even the most basic service will be music to their ears.

3.2 million homes and businesses connected to broadband
600,000 will remain unable to get ADSL
Many of these live in Highlands of Scotland
Average price for 512Kbps broadband is 20
For many there has been a frustrating wait for broadband and a growing resentment at the way BT has made them apply for services.

The current system of so-called trigger levels, in which BT only agrees to upgrade an exchange when enough people register interest in broadband, will now be scrapped.

"We looked at the number of exchanges left and quite a few were a long way off their triggers," explained a BT spokesman.

"It makes sense for us to do it region by region and it means they will get broadband a lot quicker," he said.

And there is at least the suggestion of a change in the way the telco views broadband.

"We are taking a different view on it. There is a lot more interest in broadband now and we are far more confident that people will come and get it," he said.

Fast forward

For BT at least broadband has come of age and the telco is confident that people will have plenty of choice in terms of providers and price.

"Users will be spoilt for choice," said the BT spokesman.

But the next battlefield for broadband will definitely be speed, predicted analyst Ian Fogg.

"In Europe the focus isn't just on great coverage but looking at improvements in DSL which is not something BT is focused on," he said.

Broadband is increasingly on everyone's lips but, according to the latest statistics from regulator Ofcom, still only 12% of homes actually have a high-speed connection.

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29 Mar 04  |  Northern Ireland
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11 Mar 04  |  Technology


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