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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 July, 2003, 20:14 GMT 21:14 UK
Rural dwellers 'to bridge digital divide'
James Kerr
BBC Northern Ireland business editor

The government has announced plans to end the "digital divide" between those city dwellers who have access to affordable broadband internet, and those who live the in country who mostly do not.

For serious internet users, it should help end the frustration of trying to surf the internet down a standard phone line, while local small businesses in rural areas should experience an end to what they perceive as a major competitive disadvantage.

Ambitious broadband plans aim for 100% access within three years
The Strabane company Visual Edge is involved in the sign-making business.

The firm, which employs ten people, uses the internet to send and receive design work.

John Friel, the company's managing director and local spokesman for the Federation of Small Business, says the lack of affordable high speed access has held back the company.

"We use the internet to send and receive design work from architects and designers," he said.

"It takes too long, when everything these days is about time.

"We need better access in an area like this."

Loughgiel Community Association in north Antrim provides computer training for 120 people each week.

The centre's remote location means its broadband access is via satellite.

This is not an option for everyone and isn't cheap.


Centre manager Angela O'Hagan says rural communities are being disadvantaged by the lack of broadband availability.

"It's not just an issue for small business," she said.

"We have many people in this community who could work from home, but they can't because they haven't got broadband."

Certainly from our discussions with the industry we believe it is right to aspire to make this service available to 100% of the population
Anne Conaty
Department of Enterprise
Trying to use the internet without broadband is like trying to push a lot of water down a narrow pipe - it will go, but slowly.

The problem is that, as things stand, the wide pipe that is broadband may never be available at a realistic price to some of us.

BT currently covers Belfast, Londonderry and some of the other big towns with its ADSL service.

However, this only operates up to a distance of 5km from the exchange.

Other operators, such as NTL, also reach some of the main centres of population.

It doesn't make economic sense for them to make broadband available in rural areas at the same prices as in the towns and cities.

However, the government is now making grants available to the industry to expand the service.

According to Anne Conaty at the Department of Enterprise, the aim is to offer broadband everywhere.

"There are some limitations, including the pot of money we have available, but certainly from our discussions with the industry, we believe it is right to aspire to make this service available to 100% of the population," she said.

So it's not just small business and community groups that stand to benefit - if you live in the country and use the internet, that tedious wait online could become a thing of the past.

BBC NI business editor James Kerr
"The government is making 16m in grants available to encourage companies to promote broadband"

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