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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 December 2007, 08:42 GMT
Broadband digital divide looms
By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

Closed road
Will the broaderband road be closed in rural areas?

People living in rural parts of the country have much less choice of broadband providers, are likely to get slower speeds and pay a different price.

And with super-fast broadband on the horizon, some commentators think things are set to get a lot worse.

If you live in a rural part of the country, you could be waiting decades to get the same service that your friends and relatives in the city enjoy.

"There is going to have to be an acceptance that broadband will be faster in the cities. The model of equal access will have to be adapted," said Ian Fogg, an analyst with Jupiter Research.

He added: "Fibre costs such a fortune to roll out that it may take decades to get to ubiquitous coverage in rural areas."

Price divide

Next year sees the roll-out of the next-generation of ADSL, dubbed ADSL2+, which promises speeds of up to 24Mbps, but like its slower cousin speeds will be dependent on how far away from the exchange people live.

Scholar computer program screen image
Schools need broadband to use Scholar education software

Unbundled services - where operators take over BT's telephone exchanges with their own equipment - allows rivals to offer much cheaper broadband but, because unbundling an exchange costs in the region of £30,000, providers tend to stick to urban areas.

"Providers are loath to do this in rural areas where less people will be connected to each exchange," said Michael Phillips of consumer website

"There is a growing digital divide as people in built-up urban areas are able to take advantage of cheaper broadband and 'free' line rental, while those in the country are left languishing on more expensive packages," he said.

Some of the most popular deals already have difference prices dependent on where you live. TalkTalk's broadband service is available in 25% of unbundled exchanges but for those who live outside of the areas there is a premium of £15.

Sky Broadband relies on other wholesale products in the places where it does not have access to unbundled exchanges while Tiscali charges £8.24 per month for line rental.

Cable has also traditionally avoided rural areas for economic reasons and talk of a nationwide fibre network to provide speeds of up to 100Mbps would also have to be rolled out piecemeal.
Engineer in a telephone exchange
How fast your ADSL is depends on how close you live to the exchange

Universal broaderband?

This is a far cry from the early days of telecommunications when it was expected that telephone services would extend from John O'Groats to Lands End.

In the broadband world, there is no legal requirement for BT to make it available across the UK, although with figures estimating broadband reaches around 95% of the country, in effect it has extended its universal service agreement to broadband.

"But if we move to fibre the notion that we'd carpet the nation overnight is logistically implausible. It is very likely to be a gradual process," said Peter McCarthy-Ward, BT's director of equivalence.

He thinks the lessons from first-generation broadband roll-out suggest that the speed divide will not be huge.

"Our experience with broadband has shown us that the gap that remains can be astonishingly small," he said.

There will be other technologies, such as WIMAX, to take up the shortfall, and government initiatives are likely to play a role.

In Scotland, for example, the Scottish Government in partnership with telecoms provider Thus, has set up an initiative known as PathFinder which aims to hook up 1,260 council offices and schools in North and South Scotland to super-fast broadband connections.

John 0' Groats sign
Gone are the days when connectivity extended to whole of the UK
The PathFinder scheme was born of concern that Scotland could be left behind in the race for fast broadband. It is somewhat ironic that now many of the sites it has connected are ahead of metropolitan areas.

At St Joseph's College, a 780-pupil strong secondary school in Dumfries, pupils have been enjoying an 80Mbps connection since June of this year.

"The impact is immense on both teaching and learning. Long gone are the days of chalk and talk. Now pupils are part of the lesson," said Fiona Purdie, an English teacher at the school.

"Previously if a whole class logged on to a site the page would take ages to load now. Now it is instantaneous. That makes a big difference to motivation," said deputy head-teacher Bernie Jones.

But the new-found speeds are exposing some of the more patchy coverage children have when they go home.

"At home some still have dial-up while we still have some pupils with no access at all at home," said Ms Jones.

Radical approach

In a small market-town in the Netherlands, a novel, community-led approach to next-generation broadband has seen service provider Ons Net roll out fibre capable of delivering speeds of up to 100Mbps to the homes of it 20,000 inhabitants.

For this users pay just 15 euros (£10.70) per month.

The scheme has now been extended to nearby Eindhoven and is being looked at a model that could be applied around the world.

Girl using broadband
Broadband has revolutionised the way children are taught
Michael Corbett of the UK's Community Broadband Network is planning to replicate the radical approach in Walsall in Birmingham.

"The 'pitch' in Nuenen is not about 'bandwidth' 'fibre' or anything techie. Nuenen has an elderly community, consequently Ons Net aimed to appeal to a 75 year old woman who does not own a computer nor used the internet," he explained.

It is local services supporting security, home care, events on the local TV channel and improving the community that are attracting people.

In order to secure the necessary funds Ons Net was looking for an initial 35% sign-up rate. In fact it got closer to 85% and posted a £1m profit in its first year.

Such schemes could play an important role in the UK thinks Mr Corbett.

"It's worth giving it a try. It is better than asking Gordon Brown to sign a big cheque which he is very unlikely to do," he said.

However the UK ultimately approaches the issue of a two-tier broadband nation, it is important to remember that digital divides are not just about getting access to remote areas, thinks Tim Johnson, an analyst with research firm Point Topic.

"There is a social divide that is just as deep. 40% of the population don't have access at all and that number is reducing rather slowly," he said.

Read a selection of your comments on this story:

It's impossible for me to get more than 256kbs broadband at home. I live 6 miles from Norwich but my exchange is in another village and is further away. The area I live in has recently seen a massive rise in housing due to a new estate being built, but as with all the other infrastructure nothing gets updated or improved.
Rad, Norfolk

Broadband is simply not available at my house. There seems to be no sign of it ever becoming available. This precludes my working from home completely (I'm an IT consultant, quite capable of working off-site). It also restricts the facilities available to my children & in my view restricts them educationally & socially. The cause of the problem is IMO nothing more than BT's miserly approach to repairing its infrastructure. We are not too far away from the exchange; merely on a line which is of too low quality. Apparently the supernormal profit generated by broadband is not enough to subside weak connections. What is required, again IMO, is a change to the telecoms Universal Service Obligation to require landline providers to provide for data services at no less than .5mbps downstream.
Simon Smith, East Bolton, near Alnwick, Northumberland

You say there's a gap growing between city and rural - but there are still patches of city that are really badly covered. I live in Bradley Stoke, Bristol, and I can only get 1.5meg download speed despite living a few miles from Orange HQ! The exchange for Bradley Stoke is miles away in Almondsbury so half of the town - over the 3.5m limit - get awful service but have to pay the same cost as those who get the full (or as close as you can get) 8meg service in the rest of Bristol. Fair? Not really. ISPs need to offer cheaper service depending on how fast you can or want to connect. The attitude now is charge everyone the same regardless and see how fast it goes. If you're lucky, you'll get a good connection. If you're not you'll get ripped off.
Chris, Bristol

Just don't get me would be nice to be able to get broadband. BT really are the most useless organisation in the UK and the regulators should be ashamed of themselves for the way they have allowed BT to get away with treating rural consumers. We have had 18 months of delays,excuses incorrect information etc and are currently getting an update once a month that our case has been marked forward for review again in a month's time. Absolutely useless
Mark Blayney, Carrshield Hexham

For years we've been trying to get broadband, with no luck. Multiple times BT have informed us that we could get broadband, but after trying (which included changing plans, buying new hardware and even upgrading telephone lines), we were told that we couldn't get it. This is made even worse by having people less than 2 miles away in all directions having broadband available, yet BT still haven't extended the line the extra 1-2 miles so that us and multiple other businesses can get it. It annoys me that people in the cities, with internet already fast enough to do most online activities easily, are planned to get faster internet, yet us in rural areas are stuck with technology from the 1990s.
James Gibbins, Clyst Hydon, Devon, England

I live in the fairly rural area of Herefordshire and the constant speed difference between our house and even local cities is noticeable. Our local exchange gets about 2mbps I believe and we get approximately 1.5mbps, but Hereford, just 25 miles away enjoys 4mbps if not even higher. One of my friends achieves an appalling 512kbps speed. Far more major cities are enjoying very high speeds and I loath seeing the adverts for 16 or even 20mbps when I know we won't be getting this until at least 2011. As a part time web developer, the broadband-divide is a major issue and I really hope that the fibre roll out will be rapid enough that I won't be left even further behind than I currently am.
Dan Price, Presteigne, UK

It is not just rural areas. I live in Derry, Northern Ireland. The BT exchange is not unbundled and the maximum it can provide is 1.5MB!
Pádraig Mckeag, United Kingdom

Slow speeds in rural areas? I live in Hampstead, London, just a stone throw away from the A41. Despite having singed up with Demon for a 8MBit/s connection, according the and the BT speed tester, I actually get about 1.4MBit/s down and 148kBit/s up. According to BT this is because I live right in between two exchanges and there is no upgrade planned. How much worse can it be in the country, where lower population would suggest more available bandwidth?
T Scholz, London, UK

I live in Camberwell, zone 2 in South East London. The fastest speed I can get is 1.1mbs, well below the nation average. I believe this is a problem with the Brixton phone exchange. I think it's appalling that friends of mine who live in Norfolk can get up to 8mbs whilst in London I am stuck with 1. Also due to tariffs the way they are, I pay for "maximum speed" broadband, yet no one is doing anything to improve my service or give me discount as I am limited by the phonelines.
Steve, Camberwell

It's not just those in the country that have difficulty in broadband. I live on the tip of the Isle of Dogs in London, barely a mile from Canary Wharf but the quality of broadband is patchy to say the least. 1MB is the top speed I can get and that's being optimistic.
Paul Osborne, London

You wrote: "In the broadband world, there is no legal requirement for BT to make it available across the UK, although with figures estimating broadband reaches around 95% of the country, in effect it has extended its universal service agreement to broadband. " I have to contest this. By definition, the 'universal service obligation' was there precisely to help the last few percent. I know people who live in rural Wiltshire who still cannot get any broadband at all; their exchange is 'enabled' but they live too far from it, so they are still stuck on dial-up.
Conor O'Neill, Bristol

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