BT justifies broadband plans

BT turns on the charm, but analysts reckon its promises are, at best, "dubious"

In a glitzy conference in London's West End Monday, BT presented its vision of the broadband future -- and claimed it will roll out satellite to those areas that will not be ADSL-enabled.

Despite the current outrage in the Internet industry over the rollout of ADSL services -- complaints to Oftel from rival telcos about perceived unfairness in the way BT is rolling out ADSL, Oftel boss David Edmonds being hauled before the Trade and Industry select committee -- BT remains convinced that it is driving the broadband revolution in the UK.

Addressing attendees as "citizens of the openworld", chief executive of BTopenworld Ben Andradi described how BT intends to change the "way we work, live and play", with its high-speed, ADSL Internet service.

As well as demonstrating the service, BT announced several content deals and a broadband portal which will be accessible via PC, WAP phone, TV or PDA. Marc Deschamp, BT's chief executive of broadband, outlined some of the content BTopenworld will provide. It includes a music channel, where musicians will get the chance to jam online, a photo editing and publishing suite, a database of short films to watch on demand and snail racing.

"Broadband is about generating new applications, new industries and a new economy," said Deschamp. BT has over 90 content deals, including the BBC, Reuters and the Cartoon Network.

In an interview with ZDNet News after the event, Andradi claimed that BT is determined to overcome the problems in getting ADSL to rural areas. By the end of 2001, around 30 percent of the country will still have no ADSL access. "We are very conscious that the physics mean that only 70-80 percent of the population will get it [ADSL]. We are running trials on satellite for remote areas," he said. He claims rollout of satellite services will begin in 12 months time.

Ovum analyst Tim Johnson is sceptical. "That would be the fastest rollout I've heard of. I shall be jolly pleased if they achieve their 70 percent by end of next year," he said. He believes that households that do receive satellite as an alternative to ADSL will get an inferior service. "Satellite is second best," he said.

Andradi ruled out the possibility of making nationwide ADSL rollout part of its universal service obligation. Oftel is currently consulting industry about whether BT's universal service obligation should be extended to broadband, but Andradi dismissed it as "far-fetched".

Johnson believes that more worrying than BT's limited ADSL coverage is the fact that -- as part of the unbundling process -- it only plans to open up a fraction of its exchanges for other operators to install ADSL equipment. He accuses BT of hypocrisy. "It can roll out to 70 percent of the population, but it can't colocate in all of these. That sounds thoroughly dubious," he said.

For those who are still waiting for ADSL equipment to be installed, Andradi had good news. He claimed the preregistered orders would be cleared in the next month and those ordering ADSL after that would receive it within 15 working days. BT denies there is a shortage of engineers, claiming 1,200 people are trained in ADSL installation.

For most industry experts the main barrier to ADSL becoming a mass market product is price. Andradi admits changes may need to be made. "Over time, in order to make it a mass market product, we will be looking at different price points," he said.

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