Speed limit on the British superhighway

Tony Blair and BT claim the digital divide will soon be dead and buried. But Lucy Sherriff says doubts remain
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The Independent Online

Anyone in Britain who wants a broadband connection will have one by 2008, Tony Blair promised at the Labour Party conference last week. Labour, he said, was committed to "ending the digital divide".

However, far from praising Mr Blair for helping to close this divide, the industry notes that the question of broadband availability for British households has been resolved - and that this has happened without Government intervention.

During the dot-com boom years, the technology sector was clamouring for faster data- rate connections, but neither BT nor the Government seemed inclined to respond. The Government said it was an issue for the markets to resolve, while the telephone company's then chief executive, Sir Peter Bonfield, was too focused on BT's falling voice revenues to engage fully with the nascent data market.

Cable firms took full advantage of BT's slow start and established a strong foothold. NTL now has a 30 per cent market share; it passed the million subscriber mark in May this year.

Now in the hands of Ben Verwaayen, BT has made efforts to activate broadband services on its exchanges. Today, DSL connections are available to over 90 per cent of the population, and coverage is set to grow in the next year. The company announced last month that network tests showed it could make broadband available further away from the exchanges than it previously thought possible. This will add another million lines.

By next summer, as a result, the technology will be available to 99.4 per cent of UK homes and businesses. This is more of the population than currently has access to a clean analogue TV signal.

Although all this means that the Prime Minister's pledge will be met, he is criticised both for inaction and selling Britain short on connection speeds. Michael Fabricant, the shadow minister for industry and technology, claims BT's rollout "has nothing to do with Mr Blair". The Government has also done the public a disservice by defining broadband as anything that is permanently connected to the internet, he adds.

"Broadband is not [a data speed of] 128 kilobits per second," he says. "And by insisting that it is, the Government is consigning us to an antiquated broadband architecture. The Government has deliberately set low parameters so it looks like we are doing better than we are."

Indeed, the argument over exactly what constitutes broadband is still a lively one. While telecoms regulator Ofcom defines it as a permanent internet connection, the Advertising Standards Agency is stricter. Last year it told NTL that it couldn't promote its 128kbps service as broadband at all, saying most consumers would assume this meant a connection speed of over 500kbps. And this summer it ruled that Wanadoo, formerly Freeserve, was misleading people by advertising a 512kbps link as "full speed" broadband. The ASA said this implied the connection was the fastest available, and told the firm to drop the phrase from its advertising.

Jenny Conti, a principal researcher at the Consumers' Association (CA), says the practice of capping - imposing a limit on the amount of data that can be downloaded in a month - adds another layer of complexity to the packages on offer and will further confuse consumers.

And although access levels are good, coverage is not complete. According to a recent CA survey, more than a quarter of respondents said they could not get broadband in their area.

"Over 99 per cent coverage is fantastic, but some rural areas are still without any access at all," says Ms Conti. "Plenty of individuals are frustrated by this."

Programmes are under way to bring connections to the remaining 100,000 people who won't have access by next summer. The North West Regional Development Agency, for example, has managed to upgrade exchanges in Cumbria deemed commercially unviable by BT. In the North-east, meanwhile, the local RDA secured European funding that has made the area one of the best connected outside London.

A bigger issue, perhaps, is that of affordability. A broadband connection might only be £15 per month, but it is no good if a household can't afford a PC.

But Anthony Walker, the chief executive of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, an advisory body which consults with the Government over issues such as access and services, claims there is substance behind Mr Blair's promise to end the digital divide. "What is encouraging is that the Government recognises the significance of broadband for education and delivery of public services," he says. "Now it is a question of exploiting the infrastructure.

"There is an intersection of educational policy and issues around digital inclusion. Although none of the specifics are in place yet, a dialogue has begun with the Government about issue such as affordability of access."

The Government says it will work with industry and the education and charitable sectors to provide broadband for people on the lowest incomes. The initial target group will be the three million families claiming the highest levels of tax credit.

So whatever its critics claim, the rallying cry for the 21st century Labour Party seems to be "broadband for all".

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