Government unveils broadband master plan

E-commerce minister Stephen Timms explains how the public sector's appetite for broadband will help achieve ADSL coverage of more than 90 percent of the population

The government is setting up nine agencies across the UK to drive the aggregation of public-sector broadband demand -- a move that it believes will play a major role in closing the high-speed digital divide.

E-commerce minister Stephen Timms has told ZDNet UK that the creation of the Regional Aggregation Bodies (RABs), announced on Thursday, is a "very significant development" in the creation of Broadband Britain.

Each RAB will assess how much demand for broadband there is from the public sector in its area. This demand will be bundled together, and telecoms operators will be invited to pitch for the contract to satisfy this demand. Initially, just schools and hospitals will be included, but the government hopes that a wider range of public sector institutions will eventually be involved.

According to the government, once public sector buildings have been upgraded to broadband, it will be cheaper for telcos to offer high-speed connectivity to nearby residents. "The key benefit for lots of places where broadband isn't available today is that there will now be enough [public sector] demand for service operators to justify investing in broadband infrastructure," Timms told ZDNet UK. "Once the infrastructure is there, anyone can benefit."

Affordable broadband is available to around three-quarters of the UK population either from cable or BT's ADSL network. In addition, high-speed wireless networks are available in some areas. Satellite services work anywhere in Britain, but two-way satellite can be very expensive and cheaper one-way satellite doesn't offer a fast uplink.

BT believes its ADSL network will cover 90 percent of the population by 2005, if all its rural trigger levels are hit.

The most expensive part of upgrading a telephone exchange to broadband is the cost of providing high-speed connectivity between the exchange and the telco's backbone network. Timms believes that the RABs can play a key role in lowering this hurdle, and possibly push ADSL coverage well above 90 percent.

"Public sector demand will justify backhaul investment, which is a large part of the overall cost of broadband rollout," Timms explained. "I certainly hope that this approach will let us achieve significantly higher coverage than would be possible otherwise. If 90 percent [ADSL] coverage is achievable without it, then we'll get further with the RABs in place."

Prime minister Tony Blair announced last November that all schools would have a broadband connection by 2006. In a statement released on Thursday, secretary of state for education Charles Clarke said that broadband was "key to enabling and supporting teaching and learning."

The RABs should be in place by October, and Timms hopes that the first contract will be awarded by April 2004.

Earlier this month, the select committee on environment, food and rural affairs told the government it must revise its broadband strategy, and consider spending money to drive rollout in places where telcos currently don't offer services. The government, though, is committed to letting market forces drive broadband rollout; with the public sector playing, in Timms' words, the role of "an intelligent client".

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