Government faces grilling over rural broadband

Sir George Young is taking his battle for wider broadband rollout to Westminster Hall, where e-commerce minister Stephen Timms will be on hand to defend the government's broadband policy

The UK government's record on broadband will come under scrutiny on Tuesday from MPs who are likely to attack its performance on rural coverage and wireless.

Sir George Young MP has organised a debate at Westminster Hall, at which he will raise the fact that around one-third of the British population still cannot get affordable high-speed Internet access.

E-commerce minister Stephen Timms will also be taking part in the debate, which will be streamed live on the Internet.

ZDNet UK understands that Sir George -- a long-term campaigner for more broadband rollout -- will warn that the non-availability of broadband in areas such as his North-West Hampshire constituency is causing increasing concern to those who are stranded on the wrong side of the broadband divide.

Sir George is also expected to claim that the government's policy of not making broadband a universal service is harming rural areas, as telcos such as BT refuse to make broadband infrastructure available in places where they believe it isn't yet commercially viable.

As ZDNet UK reported earlier this year, Sir George has been pushing the DTI over recent months for firm details about how the government's pledge to make all schools, hospitals and GP surgeries broadband-enabled will be implemented. This issue will also be raised at Tuesday's debate -- where Stephen Timms will be urged to disclose more information about how this deployment might also bring broadband to the surrounding community.

Wireless broadband is another issue likely to be debated.

Some in the industry believe that the government's approach to wireless broadband has on occasions been shambolic, given its repeated attempts to auction the 28GHz band, the criticism over the way it is making the 3.4GHz band available, and anger over the Ministry of Defence's insistence that 5.8GHz should be subject to licence restrictions -- a move that, if taken, could harm the rollout of wireless broadband in rural areas.

One source familiar with the issue told ZDNet UK that wireless can be a breakthrough technology for remote and rural areas.

"Telcos talk about the last mile, but with wireless it's possible to invert that thinking and call the community network the first mile," he said, explaining that technologies such as Wi-Fi can make broadband available in places where major telcos currently fear to tread.

In its second annual report, the Broadband Stakeholder Group urged the government to develop a strategic plan for wireless broadband and to facilitate the deployment of wireless broadband in the UK.

In response, the government said last week that it recognised the need to give operators access to spectrum such as 3.4GHz and 5.8GHz, and added that it was "actively considering including fixed wireless access in the first wave of spectrum trading," which could begin in 2004.

To view the broadband debate, which will take place between 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, click here.

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