Communications Bill ignores broadband

BT will not be forced to provide affordable broadband to everyone who wants it -- bad news for those whose local exchange is not yet ADSL-enabled

The Communications Bill, under which a "super-regulator" will be created to oversee Britain's telecommunications and broadcasting sectors, does not include any new measures to support the rollout of broadband in the UK.

The decision means there is no chance of the government forcing BT to speed up the rollout of ADSL by compelling it to make broadband available to everyone in the UK, at least not until there are many more broadband users.

The government insists that it can execute its broadband strategy without bringing in new legislation, and believes that the recent boom in broadband take-up is a sign that the market is developing well. "Our strategy involves government and the market working together to roll out broadband as quickly as possible. The Communications Bill won't be used to implement this," a DTI spokesman told ZDNet UK.

The government could have decided to make broadband a "universal service" -- as it suggested doing in the Communications Bill white paper last year. This would have obliged BT, as the UK's incumbent telecoms operator, to make high-speed Internet access available to everyone in the UK for the same price.

Currently, BT has ADSL-enabled just over 1,000 of its 5,000 local exchanges -- enough to cover between 60 and 70 percent of the population. Following the success of its recent price cuts, the company is upgrading 100 more, and another 500 could also get broadband soon.

BT insists it is committed to providing ADSL to more parts of the UK, but has said that it simply isn't economically viable to do so on its own as there is insufficient demand in less densely populated areas.

However, ZDNet UK is regularly contacted by frustrated Internet users who are keen to get broadband but find that their local exchange has not been upgraded -- leaving those without access to cable or wireless broadband with a choice between staying with a slow dial-up connection, or paying for a much more expensive satellite broadband product -- around £60 per month plus an installation fee of at least £899 +VAT.

Oftel, which will become part of the new OFCOM regulator once the Communications Bill becomes law, recently considered making broadband a universal service. It decided not to, partly because of the low take-up of broadband at the time. Oftel resolved that universal service obligations were best used in circumstances where the majority of customers would subsidise the needs of a small minority.

Making broadband a universal service would mean that the substantial costs would be covered by revenue from basic voice customers, some of who might not even want broadband.

Eventually, though, it seems certain that broadband will join voice as a universal service. As the government said in the Communications white paper, "The case for a universal obligation to ensure everyone has access to more rapid digital services may, however, become more compelling as the roll out of these services accelerates and as more of the services necessary for full participation in modern society, particularly public services, are delivered electronically."

The Government's current broadband strategy, which was decided after consultation with the Broadband Stakeholders Group, includes a number of tax incentives for teleworking and broadband content creators, money for rural broadband initiatives and the bundling together of public service broadband.


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