Politician slams broadband uncertainty

Sir George Young is unhappy with BT's refusal to make broadband available in many rural areas, and the government's opposition to tax breaks for companies that provide high-speed Internet services

A senior Conservative MP has criticised BT's policy of suspending ADSL rollout until it sees evidence of sufficient demand for broadband in rural areas, and demanded that the government provides more financial assistance to the telecommunications industry.

Speaking on Thursday, Sir George Young told a parliamentary seminar that those living in rural areas without broadband availability are faced with continuing uncertainly, because there is no indication as to when ADSL or broadband cable will reach them. This, Sir George said makes it impossible for local authorities and firms based in the countryside to plan their future use of technology.

BT has said it would be not be economically viable to ADSL-enable local exchanges in rural areas, where population density is relatively low. Sir George has little time for that argument, though. He believes that ADSL simply hasn't been available for long enough for BT to say there is 'low demand'.

"Let's look at the facts," said Sir George. "ADSL has only been on offer for something over a year. Only in the latter part of that year has it become widely available. In 2001 it cost £150 to install and £39.99 a month to run. Does 120,000 users in year one really represent low take up?"

"Given that around half of these users were sold ADSL by third parties rather than by BT, has BT really given this its best marketing attention before complaining of a lack of demand?" added Sir George, who also said that BT's own figures show that the number of ADSL customers looks likely to double every four months - hardly the sign of an unpopular technology.

Sir George Young made his comments at a parliamentary forum held following the publication of a report from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology called "e is for everything?", which considered issues such as broadband, the forthcoming communications bill, and digital TV. You can read his complete speech here.

The current Labour government also came under fire from Sir George, who served in the Thatcher and Major Conservative governments and is currently chairman of the Commons committee on standards and privileges.

E-commerce minister Douglas Alexander has rejected the idea of offering tax incentives to boost high-speed Internet access in the UK -- despite the fact the suggestion came from his own broadband advisory group. Ironically Sir George -- who was Secretary of State for Transport when Britain's railways were privatised-- believes that the left-of-centre Alexander should take a more active involvement in the issue. "From a strictly commercial perspective the case for short or medium term investment in providing broadband to areas with a low population density is a weak one," he said. "However, from a national strategic perspective it is essential that we provide the access and remove the uncertainty."

Sir George would like to see the government using its influence, in partnership with regulatory agencies and the local authority, to encourage infrastructure providers to build broadband networks in rural areas. "Government, the regulator and the industry need to get together to work out how to deliver universal access to this critical technology in a competitive, mixed market environment," he said.

Over 1,000 of BT's local exchanges are ADSL-enabled -- covering more than 60 percent of the population. In the near future, though, the company's position is thought to be that it will only upgrade extra exchanges if some of the cost is born by other companies or government bodies -- as it does not believe it would be economically viable for it to do so on its own.

The company recently announced that some exchanges in rural Cornwall are soon to offer broadband, thanks to a deal with the European Regional Development Council.

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