BT boss wants government support not subsidies

The government's role in promoting high-speed Internet take-up is to encourage public sector bodies to become broadband-enabled, not dish out subsidies, says Ben Verwaayen

BT chief executive Ben Verwaayen believes the government has a huge role to play in the uptake of broadband -- but as a user of it, not a provider of subsidies to companies involved in its rollout.

Verwaayen claims to be pleased with the way the UK government is dealing with broadband, but wants the rhetoric to stop and action to start.

He is particularly keen to see local government do more to bring broadband to rural areas.

In an interview with online journalists on Tuesday, he said: "We have said many times that e-government is the perfect vehicle to bring broadband to remote places. If you look at hospitals, schools and so on, the potential is obvious. If we had a programme to get those broadband enabled -- and we have made proposals in that direction -- there would be enormous take-up."

There are already several initiatives underway which will encourage public sector bodies up and down the country to aggregate their broadband demand, making its provision financially viable.

The Office of Government Commerce (OGC), which is responsible for government procurement, placed an advert in the Official Journal of the European Communities last month asking for broadband companies who are interested in providing services on this basis to come forward.

The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has appointed a team of advisers who will talk to schools, hospitals, libraries and other public bodies in areas where broadband is not available to help them club together to persuade telcos to bring broadband to their area. They will start work this autumn.

There are also funds available from government (to a limited extent) and the European Union (to a greater extent) for broadband rollouts in rural areas. A scheme in Cornwall known as ACT NOW will see 33,000 small businesses wired up, with £5m coming from the European Regional Development Fund, and £1m from the South West Regional Development Agency.

The Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Development Agency have committed £43m to help get broadband into businesses and homes in Wales.

BT is also trialling a scheme that could see broadband rolled out to rural areas with as few as 16 subscribers. It is based on a sponsorship model in which each participating body contributes £7,000 to cover the costs of the six month trial.

Verwaayen prefers these initiatives to any direct subsidies from government.

He said: "Subsidies are never a good idea in the long-term. The best thing to do is use the stuff. That's a much better way to spend money than subsidies. Everything the government has said so far is right, and we are eager to participate."

He added: "It's clear that the government is a huge customer, and a huge innovator if they put their mind to it. They are an enormous influence on the behaviour of residential and business customers. They speak the right language, everybody's involved, (e-commerce minister) Stephen Timms and his predecessors have done a great job in ensuring everybody is focused on broadband. The only thing I'm saying now is: Let's go."


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