BT pledges to give broadband access to every UK home

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BT pledged yesterday to upgrade its network if there was sufficient demand so that every home in the UK would be able to access high-speed internet services by the end of 2005.

Just over 80 per cent of UK households can get high-speed broadband internet services - more houses than are connected to the mains gas network - although it is hoped that that will have increased to about 90 per cent by the end of next year.

BT said it would now look at upgrading another 2,300 exchanges if enough households - between 100 and 500 depending on the exchange - registered their demand for broadband under its upgrade scheme.

Up until now, it has ignored those exchanges because they serve only about 10 per cent of UK households and it could not see a viable way of carrying out the work. It has been concentrating on the other 2,500 exchanges, which cover about 90 per cent of UK households. About 1,900 exchanges have been enabled for broadband.

Ben Verwaayen, BT's chief executive, said yesterday: "We have clear momentum and this, together with our latest understanding of technology and costs and the growing enthusiasm for regional partnerships, means we can take a new approach to broadband investment."

The move means about 600 exchanges, some with as few as three households, have yet to be included in the upgrade scheme. Those exchanges, which serve about 100,000 households would need different "partnership investment approaches", BT said.

"We are critically dependent on public partnerships to stimulate demand and to intervene with support to get the exchanges enabled early," Mr Verwaayen said.

Since he arrived at BT in the spring of last year, he has put broadband at the centre of his plan to grow BT's revenues in the face of increasing competition in the fixed line voice market. He is aiming for 2 million broadband customers by the end of next year and 5 million by the end of 2006. "Eighteen months ago, we had no targets and fewer than 200,000 customers and at the half-year results [published last week], we announced we had over 1.5 million [customers] and 40,000 orders a week," he said.

The move was welcomed by the telecoms regulator. David Edmonds, the director-general of telecommunications, said: "It is good news for small businesses wishing to maximise the benefits of trading on the internet and for consumers wanting ever faster access with more advanced services."

It also got a mention in Tony Blair's speech at the CBI conference. "I welcome Ben Verwaayen's announcement this morning that BT is eager to work with us and local communities to broaden access. I share with him the vision of achieving 100 per cent national coverage by 2005."

Separately, BT announced yesterday it had begun its share buy-back programme.