Both the government and BT must do more to help the creation of high-speed wireless networks in the UK if Broadband Britain is to become a reality, MPs said on Tuesday.
Leading a debate on broadband in rural areas, Sir George Young MP criticised the government for not doing enough to close a digital divide which currently means that somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of rural areas have no access to affordable broadband.
According to Sir George, the government has failed thus far to give out full details of how it will deliver broadband to every school, hospital and GP's surgery, as promised by Prime Minister Tony Blair last November.
Many MPs are keen to see this commitment fulfilled in such a way that the wider community also benefits -- perhaps by ADSL-enabling the local exchange or installing a Wi-Fi connection that could be shared by surrounding households in the evenings -- rather than a solution such as using leased lines that wouldn't be shared.
"A bolder and preferable target for the government would be to specify a delivery mechanism for schools which would bring both opportunities for that school, and automatically pull through additional broadband infrastructure to rural areas that might otherwise have to wait a long time for broadband under normal commercial conditions," said Sir George.
Several other MPs backed this point, and two urged e-commerce minister Stephen Timms to make the 2GHz band available to telcos.
"The government has not released the 'sweet spot' 2GHz spectrum," said Sir George, adding that the government had to make a decision between concentrating on making the maximum revenue through spectrum auctions and on making appropriate spectrum available.
Timms did not address this point in his response to the comments raised in the debate, though.
BT has been urging the government to give it access to 2GHz for months -- a request that had been refused, as the spectrum is already used by military and security services. Some experts, though, have indicated that 2GHz is not the best spectrum for broadband and that telcos should look at 3.4GHz, 5.8GHz and even 28GHz.
Although some MPs congratulated BT for its recent broadband initiatives such as its registration scheme and its mini-DSLAMs, the telco did not escape criticism.
Richard Allan MP pointed out that the telco had the power to either help or hinder the work of community activists who are trying to build broadband wireless networks in their area, and suggested that BT should offer an affordable product to link these networks to its backbone.
"We need some imagination from the providers of fixed line networks, who are in a position to encourage or discourage wireless rollout. Wi-Fi groups aren't allowed to feed all their traffic down one ADSL line, so BT could come up with an innovative and helpful contract for these people. It wouldn't have to be free, just competitively priced," suggested Allan.
In his response, Timms agreed that wireless had a key role to play, and suggested that the upgrading of public sector buildings to broadband could help bring down the cost of connecting Wi-Fi networks to the Internet.
"The solution isn't that government provides subsidies for broadband. Instead, it's the public sector's role as a customer that is so important. We need to maximise that demand, and ensure that it is used to bring broadband to local communities," Timms told the assembled MPs.
Timms added that he had recently visited a company called Rutland Online that is setting up a Wi-Fi network which had told him that £50,000 of their projected £90,000 spending over two years was made up of network backhaul costs. By upgrading building such as schools to broadband, the government might help to bring this cost down by helping to create more infrastructure, Timms suggested.