MPs to scrutinise broadband

There's growing concern within Westminster over the high-speed digital divide -- will the blame fall on BT or the government?

One of the UK's most important parliamentary committees will put Broadband Britain under the spotlight later this year.

The Trade and Industry Select Committee announced on Friday that it is beginning an investigation into the "development of broadband in the UK". The inquiry will cover issues such as broadband rollout via both fixed line and satellite, the retail market for broadband services, and the effect of BT's dominant market position on competition. The committee expects to begin hearing evidence before the end of this year.

The launch of the inquiry has already been welcomed by BT, which has pledged to co-operate fully.

"The UK has been making great progress with broadband, and BT particularly welcomes the committee's decision to look at the topic from the point of view of the customer," said the telco, in a statement released late on Friday. "The timing is also appropriate given we have just announced that four out of five homes -- the same number that are connected to mains gas -- are now connected to broadband-enabled exchanges. Reaching the last twenty per cent of homes -- and the last ten per cent in particular -- is a challenge that faces the whole industry, the government and the regulator alike, so a healthy debate will be to the benefit of all."

BT has often been the scapegoat for the woes of Broadband Britain in the past. However, with take-up still booming and ADSL now available to 80 percent of homes, it may be justified in feeling that it is doing its bit.

Should the committee feel that the telecoms industry isn't to blame for the broadband divide, the government may find itself taking the rap. The Department of Trade and Industry, though, is likely to point to its public sector broadband-aggregation scheme as proof that it is also striving to make affordable high-speed Internet access available to all businesses and homes.

Earlier this year, over 100 MPs called on both BT and the government to do more to aid the rollout of broadband networks in rural areas.

Anyone keen to contribute to the inquiry should submit written evidence to tradeindcom@parliament.uk, and send a hard copy to Committee Office, House Of Commons, 7 Millbank, London, SW1P 3JA, before 24 October.

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