Going the extra mile for universal broadband

Now that broadband aggregation has failed, it's time for the DTI to finally provide the hard cash needed to make universal broadband coverage a reality

The collapse of the government's broadband aggregation scheme less than 18 months after its launch does little to allay the suspicion that our elected leaders are best kept away from technology issues.

Billed as the master plan to close Britain's broadband divide, the scheme was soon criticised for being too complicated and anti-competitive. It's now clear that the regional aggregation boards have struggled to achieve anything approaching the savings expected by the government. It's hard to imagine that many will achieve great things once they've been cast adrift by the government and left to fight on as commercial bodies.

However, it would be wrong to scoff too loudly. While this policy U-turn is embarrassing, it really underlines the government's struggle to cope with the problems caused by BT's slack approach to broadband at the turn of the Millennium.

The sad reality is that it needn't have bothered. The transformation of the UK's broadband fortunes can be traced straight back to the hiring of Ben Verwaayen as BT chief executive, his decision to slash prices, and the creation of BT's trigger level scheme which let millions of people register their interest in broadband.

With BT expected to reach 99.6 percent of the population with its ADSL network by the middle of next year, and over four million households using some form of broadband connection today, it's remarkable that the government could come up with a negative broadband story in the current climate.

But it still has one chance to make a big difference. BT keeps ruling out achieving 100% broadband coverage on its own, pointing out that some local exchanges are just too remote and dilapidated to be upgraded. The government can restore some of its credibility by pledging the cash needed to squish the remaining broadband blackspots.

It wouldn't have to give the cash to BT -- a competent rival such as Easynet or Bulldog would doubtless be very glad of the contract. The old worry about government intervention being disruptive to an emerging market no longer applies. At today's take-up rate, broadband is heading rapidly for mass-market status.

Various regional agencies have all moved down the direct subsidy route, managing to get round European rules on state aid. In the North-East, every local exchange that BT deemed commercially unviable for broadband will soon be upgraded, and a similar tender process is being run in Scotland right now.

Even with universal coverage, some people will live too far from their exchange for broadband to work. Businesses in some remote areas are already subsidised if they buy a high-speed satellite connection. This principle could be extended to households who can't get ADSL or cable.

Broadband Britain is a great success. If Westminster politicians want to share in the glory, then now is the time for intelligent intervention to make high-speed services available to all.

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