BT lays the path for universal broadband

Affordable broadband could soon be available almost everywhere, after BT moves to set thousands more ADSL trigger levels

BT announced on Monday that it has set trigger levels for thousands more local exchanges, a move that makes universal broadband coverage within Britain more achievable.

By giving trigger levels to an additional 2,300 exchanges, BT says it is putting mass-market broadband services within the reach of 99 percent of UK homes and businesses. However, given that many of these exchanges are situated in rural areas with relatively few households, hitting the triggers will be a major challenge.

The creation of these 2,300 additional triggers comes just days after e-commerce minister Stephen Timms announced a new government target of 100 percent broadband availability by 2005, though he stopped short of pledging any additional public money to the cause.

Trigger levels tell local communities how many people have to express an interest in getting a high-speed Internet connection in order for BT to invest in upgrading their telephone exchange to offer ADSL. BT's decision is a major about-face -- it has previously insisted that these local exchanges couldn't be given trigger levels as it said they simply could not be made both achievable and economically viable.

The trigger levels announced on Monday will range from 100 to 500 people per local exchange. BT said that even with the trigger levels in place, some rural communities are likely to need government support to spark the introduction of service.

"There's no doubt... that many of these trigger levels are very challenging to hit," said BT chief executive Ben Verwaayen on Monday. "In some areas, market stimulation alone will not be sufficient to deliver broadband."

"We are critically dependent on public partnerships to stimulate demand and to intervene with support to get the exchanges enabled early and even to help reduce the triggers. This will be essential to deliver the benefits of broadband to every community," added Verwaayen, urging local and national government to do its bit.

BT's move is likely to be welcomed by the millions of people who can't get ADSL today. But it could be a kick in the teeth for rural broadband activists who, faced with no trigger and no hope of one, have begun building their own community networks. They may find that this investment of time and money has been wasted if the people they hoped to serve decide to take ADSL instead.