E-minister: Britain will be broadband leader

In an exclusive interview the e-minister reveals why she thinks the UK is on course for a broadband revolution - and why the critics are wrong

E-minister Patricia Hewitt has rejected mounting criticisms about broadband Britain, claiming everything is on track for the UK to be the best place in the industrialised world for high-speed services by 2005.

Speaking exclusively to ZDNet, the minister dismissed the glut of recent surveys, which suggest the UK is falling behind the rest of the world in its rollout of broadband services. NetValue, for instance, puts the UK at the bottom of the broadband league table with just one in every 32 online homes connected compared to one in two in Korea, one in nine in the US and one in 16 in France.

"NetValue is completely misleading," said Hewitt. "It only looks at people using the Internet, and Germany has half as many connections. We have 40 percent Internet penetration and Germany has 20 percent."

The minister claimed that in Germany, DSL has been used for voice calls as well as for data and this accounts for the higher penetration of high-speed services. Jupiter MMXI, on the other hand, predicts just 15 percent of the total population of the UK will be connected via broadband by 2005 while Germany will have twice as many homes connected. "I don't accept that," said the minister.

She also claimed it is "absurd" to suggest that local loop unbundling -- the system which will allow other operators to roll out broadband services using BT's network -- has failed despite the fact that 28 of the original 35 players have deserted the process.

"There were always bound to be dropouts," she said. "Don't mistake the short term effects of the stock market with the long term goals. The economics of demand would not have supported that number of players."

As BT controls the majority of telephone lines into homes, it is seen as crucial to the process of rolling out broadband. While T-Online has connected 2.6 million customers to ADSL services, BT has managed just 45,000. Critics have argued that in order to kickstart the broadband revolution the government has to make some radical intervention into the pending split in the telco.

Hewitt sticks very much to the line the government has maintained ever since BT's Internet strategy has come under question. "BT has made a huge investment. It has had a lot of difficulties meeting demand and getting the technology to work but that is a common pattern," she insisted.

"The competitors have been criticising BT in lurid terms and some of the complaints are justified. If BT has had a lot of difficulties it certainly hasn't helped that the copper wires are so old."

Despite this, there are no plans, says the minister, for government investment in broadband infrastructure. A report that the DTI requested £1bn to invest in infrastructure and was turned down by the Treasury is vehemently denied by Hewitt.

"That is a complete red herring. That figure was what government consultants estimated it would cost to put ADSL in every exchange in the UK," she explained. Instead the government intends to put £500m into developing public broadband networks in libraries and schools.

On BT's plans to divide its different businesses in part of a restructuring plan to pacify shareholders, Hewitt is reticent. "That is a decision for BT. We don't own BT and we don't have any legal powers," she said. Instead she is relying on Oftel, which she described as making "some very tough decisions".

With an election looming, one of the trickiest obstacles for government to negotiate is the increasing worry the UK is becoming a nation of information haves and have-nots. With ADSL and cable confined largely to towns, the very real danger of a countryside without broadband access has put the government's digital divide policy under the spotlight.

A Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee accused the government of having no coherent policy in this areas and described its initiatives to counter a digital divide as "woefully inadequate gestures". "I think they are wrong," countered the e-minister. "It is not only government action that closes the digital divide."

So is the government confident that its optimism about the UK being the leading broadband nation is not misplaced? "If you look at the broadband market it is at a very early stage but it will come," said Hewitt. "I am certainly not a lone voice. Ntl and Telewest have enormous optimism."

At the last count both Telewest and ntl had around 17,000 broadband customers on their respective cable modem services. Cable accounts for around 15 percent of the broadband market.

"The goal is to have the most extensive market in the industrialised world and we are confident we can reach that," the e-minister concluded. This year will be crucial and if at the end of it the government's optimism is proved wrong then its policies will be reviewed. "If what we are doing is not enough we will work out a new strategy," the minister revealed.

Should such a strategy be needed, it is doubtful that Patricia Hewitt herself will be involved in developing it. Most commentators believe that after the election she will be shifted to a higher profile Cabinet post -- possibly at the Department for Education and Employment. She is widely acknowledged to be an extremely hard-working MP and is one of Blair's original New Labourites.

If such a move has been mooted, the e-Minister is keeping it close to her chest. "I have no idea. That is a matter for Tony Blair," she said. She played down ideas that the post would no longer exist after her. "I think it is very unlikely it would disappear," she said.

Is broadband coming to your neighbourhood? Find out with ZDNet UK's Broadband Britain Guide.

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