Broadband campaigners: the job's not finished

Pressure group is forced to auction its keynote speaker on eBay, and accuses government and industry of taking their eyes off the ball

The Access to Broadband Campaign (ABC) has accused government and industry of losing interest in the future of high-speed Internet access in the UK, now that near-universal ADSL coverage has been achieved.

ABC, which has campaigned since 2002 for broadband to be available for all, is holding a conference later this month to debate how Britain can match other countries, such as South Korea, where speeds of 20Mbps are common.

But after receiving no financial support from government or industry for the conference, called "The End Game for Broadband Britain", ABC has been forced to auction off the sponsorship of its keynote speech, to be given by former BT futurologist Peter Cochrane, on eBay.

"The government doesn't think this is important," said Lindsey Annison of ABC. "The feeling is that because the government is making a big play about 99 percent of homes having broadband, they don't want someone saying 'this isn't it' and knocking them out of their comfort zone."

Broadband Britain would appear to be in good shape, compared to a few years ago. BT has now made 2Mbps standard across its network for those whose telephone lines can support it, while rivals like Easynet and Bulldog are already offering 8Mbps in urban areas. UK Online launched a 22Mbps product on Wednesday.

But ABC — which was formed by a group of activists who had deployed their own broadband services in rural areas — argues that the situation is less rosy outside urban areas. Many of BT's rivals are now unbundling its local exchanges to offer their own services, but this activity is restricted to major towns and cities.

"In order to compete with the likes of South Korea and Japan, we need government and industry to think about how we roll out faster services — it could be VDSL (very high speed-DSL) to the street cabinet, or WiMax in the 'last mile' to people's homes," said Annison.

Although only a small group made up of volunteers, ABC has been an important voice in the UK broadband scene over the past few years. Because many of its members were rolling out their own broadband services in rural areas, they found that government agencies were very keen to learn from their experiences.

For example, John Wilson, co-founder of ABC who helped develop the Welsh community wireless network Arwain, has served on a number of government wireless committees in recent years.

ABC's belief that communities could use technologies like Wi-Fi to build their own broadband networks is also thought to have prompted BT to speed up its ADSL rollout.

BT confirmed on Thursday that it has chosen not to support ABC's conference.

"We have supported them in the past when the debate was focused on achieving 99 percent coverage in the UK. This is a new agenda for them. Unfortunately we need to focus our resources and can't sponsor every conference," said a BT spokeswoman.

"We are absolutely focused on rolling out higher speed broadband across the UK. We're investing massive resource in rolling out 8Mbps across the country — not just urban areas — by spring 2006. Plus we're investing £10bn in our 21st Century Network, which will bring even higher speeds across the whole of the UK," the spokeswoman added.

"The End Game for Broadband Britain" is being held on 22 November, at CityPoint, London. Bidding to sponsor Peter Cochrane's speech is continuing on eBay here.