BT to tap community spirit in rural broadband push

BT is to launch a service allowing people to register demand for broadband in a particular area, and will hook up their local exchange when a certain number is reached

BT is ready to launch a Web-based system that will allow consumers whose local telephone exchanges are not ADSL-enabled to register their demand for broadband.

Industry sources have told ZDNet UK that BT will kick off the system on Tuesday. The telco is thought to have identified 400 local exchanges where it will promise to make broadband available once enough customers have said they want to sign up for a high-speed Internet connection.

Under the scheme, BT will set a target number of potential broadband customers for each exchange. Once this figure -- which will vary for different exchanges but will probably be in the hundreds -- is reached, BT will install ADSL equipment in the exchange and local people will be able to get broadband from any ISP that provides broadband down a phone line.

This is a significant improvement on the current situation, where customers can check on the Web site if they can get ADSL, but aren't able to register their interest or get any indication as to when the situation might change.

The move is likely to be welcomed by Internet service providers, who are frustrated that they are missing out on potential customers who want broadband, but live in the wrong place. If successful, it is likely that more local exchanges will be added to the scheme.

As befits such a parochial scheme, BT's plan is expected to take its cue from the Church of England. The C of E long ago invented the 20 Foot Thermometer, where the more people subscribed to the church roof fund, the higher the mercury rose. The psychology is surprisingly complex, engendering community spirit, a sense that what one does makes a difference and an extra encouragement to dig in when completion is near.

There is growing concern that a broadband divide is growing within Britain. With BT's ADSL network covering around 66 percent for the UK population, and ntl and Telewest offering high-speed cable-based Internet access, there are still many millions of people who cannot get affordable broadband.

BT said back in April that it was examining ways of increasing the rollout of ADSL, but a BT spokesman refused to confirm that the company is about to announce a Web-based ordering system.

"We said earlier this year that we are looking at another group of local exchanges and trying to find ways of justifying the cost of upgrading them to offer broadband," a spokesman told ZDNet UK. "We have a responsibility to investors not to take actions that are not economically viable."

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