Rural areas face long broadband delays

Hitting a BT trigger level used to mean broadband was just a few months away. Now, you could be facing a wait of a year or more

Businesses and individuals in many rural parts of Britain are facing delays of over a year before they can get high-speed Internet access via their phone line, even though they have already proved that broadband is commercially viable in their area.

Last week, BT published the latest set of ADSL installation dates for local exchanges that aren't currently part of its ADSL network but where local residents have hit a BT broadband trigger level, telling the telco they would pay for broadband if it was available.

In the past these "ready for service" (RFS) dates have typically been just a few months in the future, but this time many communities have learned that it could be the middle of 2005 or beyond before broadband reaches them.

A total of 185 RFS dates were set by BT in this latest exercise. The majority of upgrades, 121, will take place in 2004, but 62 exchanges will be left until the next year -- including that will have to wait until the summer and autumn of 2005. Two exchanges will not be upgraded until 2006. In one case, this is because BT must time its work with the building of a new motorway.

Taken as a whole, these 185 dates show that the process of getting broadband is becoming increasingly drawn-out.

BT claims that this is an inevitable result of the broadband boom of recent years. As national coverage inches towards 90 percent and beyond, the pool of local exchanges remaining are in remote and rural locations and much harder and more expensive to upgrade.

One reason that these exchanges will take so long is that they don't have a decent fibre link to BT's main backbone. Putting in the necessary backhaul takes time.

"Many of these exchanges are in Scotland, where there is a huge cable build programme underway," said a BT Wholesale spokesman. But according to insiders there are elements within the telco who don't believe ADSL rollout is sufficiently important to justify speeding up the fibre-optic deployment programme.

Broadband campaigners have been pushing BT to disclose these RFS dates for some time, so their publication has been welcomed. There is concern, though, that some of them are so far in the future.

"BT has perhaps being caught out by the rapid rise in the rate at which exchanges have triggered, and this has led to some delays in the enabling system to date," said Andrew Ferguson of ADSLGuide.org.uk, a Web site that tracks the broadband market.

Ferguson accepts that running miles of fibre-optic cable for backhaul can take time to organise, as can the building work that is needed at some exchanges.

"That said, there appears to be little reason as for why some RFS dates are two years away," Ferguson said. "The BT campaign team have promised more information on these exchanges, but they are tied by what information is passed to them. The indications are that some of the very distant RFS dates may be advanced."

BT has also indicated that it is looking to hit some of the later RFS dates ahead of the published schedule.

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