BT trigger levels scupper community broadband

Last week's announcement of 2,300 more targets for rural broadband rollout could be a killer blow to local activists who were planning their own high-speed networks

Many of the community broadband schemes that have sprung up around Britain could be scuppered by BT's decision to set thousands more ADSL trigger levels.

The telco announced in mid-November that 2,300 more local exchanges will be broadband-enabled if enough households and businesses in each area sign up in advance for a high-speed Internet connection. This massive increase in the number of broadband trigger levels gives BT's wholesale broadband network a potential coverage of 99 percent of the population.

BT has already acknowledged that some of these triggers are 'very challenging', given the small size of many of the villages and towns concerned. But some in the industry fear that community broadband activists may now find it much harder to get funding from a Regional Development Agency (RDA) or similar body to finance a solution in one of Britain's broadband backlogs if an ADSL target has now been set.

"It's an issue of perception. Once people hear that BT might roll out broadband in their area, they think everything is OK," an informed source told ZDNet UK.

An area that was previously seen as being unviable for ADSL broadband by an RDA, and therefore suitable for funding to receive a community broadband project, may have that status reversed if it now has a BT trigger level assigned to its local exchange.

Even if funding is still available, some community broadband networks now won't get off the ground because many of their potential users may rather pre-register with BT, wait until their trigger level is hit, and then get broadband down their phone line.

For example, a pioneering wireless broadband project in the North Downs of Kent is now unlikely to go ahead in the aftermath of BT's explosion of trigger levels.

Mike Leadbetter, one of the people behind the Broadband4TheDowns campaign, fears that their innovative project -- which would have provided a range of community broadband services -- now won't be completed as the areas targeted by this scheme have just been given ADSL triggers.

"We've been working for three months on a project to offer wireless in four areas where ADSL isn't available. It looked like it was going well, but BT has thrown a spanner in the works, just at the right time for them, as we were reaching for the money," Leadbetter told ZDNet UK.

Rather than setting up a community wireless network, Broadband4TheDowns may now concentrate efforts on the trigger-level scheme. "We probably won't implement our plan now, as BT has effectively scuppered it. It'll be easier for us to trigger the four exchanges than to put in the wireless," Leadbetter added.

If Leadbetter's neighbours just want a high-speed Web connection, then they may be perfectly happy with ADSL. But Broadband4TheDowns were planning to offer much more -- including a community file server, and outdoor Webcams to improve local security.

The Broadband4TheDowns wireless network would also have allowed bandwidth management across the community.

For example, the local primary schools could have upped the speed of their connection to as much as six megabytes per second (Mbps) if they were video-conferencing with another school, with other residents seeing their available bandwidth dropping for those couple of hours. A permanent 6Mbps connection would make a big hole in the budget of most schools -- this way it would have been easy, and much cheaper, to provide the bandwidth when needed.

Such features won't be possible if the local area just has ADSL in the future.

For some in the industry, this is a good illustration of why relying on BT to create Broadband Britain isn't too wise, given ADSL's limitations.

"It's like the flat earthers versus the round earthers," explained John Wilson, co-founder of the Access to Broadband Campaign, who believes wireless broadband can offer much more than ADSL. "When large telcos tell us that ADSL is enough, it's as if they're telling us that the world is flat, and they are believed because they keep repeating it. But a lot of people know the world is round, and they want to explore it".

BT, though, has played down the suggestion that the battle for universal broadband coverage is now over.

"We believe that some of these triggers will only be hit if we get some level of public sector involvement," a BT spokesman explained. "BT is still talking to RDAs about partnerships to help reduce some trigger levels," he added.

It's likely that many of the larger trigger levels will take longer than a year to be achieved, so financial assistance could still be available for these areas. There are also 600 local exchanges still without triggers, and these are extremely unlikely to offer ADSL even in the medium term as the communities they serve are so small that there simply aren't enough potential customers to justify the expense of an upgrade.