BT suspends ADSL rollout

BT will not upgrade any more local exchanges to ADSL until it sees sufficient demand, leaving many rural areas without affordable broadband access
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

BT has suspended the rollout of ADSL across its network while it attempts to boost the take-up of high-speed Internet access at existing broadband-enabled exchanges.

Having made around 1,000 local exchanges ADSL-ready, BT has no immediate plans to make the technology available in other exchanges until it sees clear signs that customers will pay for it. It is instead concentrating on a nationwide advertising campaign.

"We guaranteed that we would have 1,000 exchanges enabled for ADSL by the end of September, and we achieved this target a couple of weeks early," a BT spokeswoman told ZDNet UK. "Beyond that, we're waiting for see evidence of demand in other areas," she added.

The decision means that those customers living in rural or sparsely populated areas have no immediate chance of being offered ADSL, unless an operator decides there is sufficient demand or the government gets more closely involved in the push towards Broadband Britain.

BT believes that it isn't economic to spend money on local exchanges in these areas to make them ADSL-enabled -- a credible position given the disappointing pace of local-loop unbundling (LLU). Under LLU, rival operators can buy space in BT's exchanges and offer their own broadband services to end users, but so far a meagre 150 local lines have been unbundled.

BT is planning to launch a satellite broadband service for rural areas soon. However, according to details released on Monday this service will cost at least £69.99 per month, plus a connection charge of £899.

The nationwide advertising campaign began last month, and BT believes it is already showing signs of success. "Before we started the campaign, we were receiving around 2,000 ADSL orders per week. That figure has now doubled to 4,000," said the BT spokeswoman.

BT's ADSL network covers 13 million homes -- around 60 percent of the population -- and while it may be unreasonable to expect BT to offer ADSL to every home in the UK, many people have been surprised that they aren't able to get broadband through their phone line.

At a recent event, a Durham resident complained to Sir Peter Bonfield -- BT's departing chief executive -- that he lived "only three miles south of the city centre" and couldn't get ADSL. Bonfield suggested he considered investing in an ISDN line.

However, all may not be lost for rural surfers, as the government is close to announcing plans to "aggregate" the rural demand that BT says it needs to justify broadband roll-out in those areas.

Speaking at the TMA conference in Brighton last week, Chris Parker, head of e-Economy in the office of the e-Envoy, said there is a "big problem" with GPs, primary schools and other services in rural areas that cannot access broadband. "We are committed to look at how we can aggregate demand for rural areas, perhaps using local government services as an anchor tenant."

BT agrees that some form of aggregation is needed. "The economic case is different at each exchange, and it may well help if there is a retail park or a school nearby -- something that is likely to boost demand," said the BT spokeswoman. "There must be a recognition that one company can't make the broadband revolution happen on its own," she continued, adding, "by no means have we stopped the rollout forever."

Parker said the government sees broadband as vital for social inclusion, and said getting broadband to the rural population is one of the major challenges facing the government. "Capital markets are not at their most conducive for supplying the money to build extra infrastructure right now," said Parket. "The government clearly has a role in helping to address that."

Last month, the Department of Trade and Industry confirmed that £30m was available to boost broadband use in more rural parts of the UK. Regional Development Authorities have been asked to come up with proposals that would increase broadband take-up in their area.

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