Broadband vendors: Why can't we do it in the road?

Operators claim that measures to fight traffic congestion will inhibit the rollout and repair of high-speed telecommunications

British businesses will have to pay more for high-speed Internet services and wait longer for problems to be fixed if legislation currently passing through Parliament becomes law, according to a group of UK telecoms operators.

The Traffic Management Bill will limit the extent to which utility companies such as telcos can dig up the nation's roads. The government claims that it will help to reduce traffic congestion, but the UK Competitive Telecommunications Association (UKCTA) predicts painful side-effects.

UKCTA, which represents several UK telecoms network operators, claims that if the bill becomes law then it will be much harder for telcos to offer next-generation broadband services. Repairing networks will also be more difficult and could leave users without Internet access for several days, according to UKCTA.

"It will mean delays in provisioning networks and delays in fixing them, and costs will go up," claimed Domhnall Dods, chairman of UKCTA's government relationship committee.

"It's going to crucify the broadband market."

The Traffic Management Bill has already been approved by the House of Commons. It was scheduled to be examined by a House of Lords committee on Tuesday, and will return to the Commons for a final vote later this year.

As the bill stands, local authorities will be able to enforce embargos that prevent roads being repeatedly dug up by utility companies. They will also be able to stop busy roads being dug up at all.

The government says that these moves should be popular with UK motorists.

Launching the bill late last year, transport secretary Alistair Darling said they would give the Highways Agency and councils "powers and a duty to keep roads clear and traffic moving".

The take-up and rollout of basic broadband services are unlikely to be affected by this legislation. BT has already DSL-enabled enough local exchanges to reach 90 percent of the population, and NTL and Telewest are concentrating their efforts on increasing take-up in places that are already covered by their cable networks.

The real impact, UKCTA says, will be suffered by businesses who want very fast Internet access.

"When big corporations want a service, they demand it quickly, and they expect it to be fixed quickly when it breaks. People want things fixed in four hours. If something breaks on a Friday afternoon and we have to apply to the council for a permit, they might not look at it until Monday and we might not get approval to fix the problem for four or five days," Dods suggested.

The National Joint Utilities Group, which includes BT, Thus, Telewest, NTL and Cable & Wireless, also claims that the bill could cost consumers and businesses money.

"The government is making it more costly and difficult for gas, electricity, water and telecommunications companies to repair and improve essential infrastructure and fulfil their obligations to their customers. With or without a new regime, these works will still have to be carried out. Under the proposed regime they will simply be carried out at higher cost to everyone," said Frank Stewart, NJUG chairman, in a statement released on Monday.

Trade body Intellect has also protested against the bill, citing it as proof that the government simply doesn't understand the knowledge economy. Some MPs have also expressed concern about the issue.

However, such views have largely been ignored, and Tuesday's House of Lords hearing is the last opportunity for changes to be made to the bill before it become an act.