Confusion at BT over broadband rollout

BT Retail spokesman is surprisingly pessimistic about just how many local exchanges in the UK will ever be ADSL-enabled

BT's decision to create a Web-based broadband registration scheme appears to have led to confusion within the telco itself over future broadband rollout plans. The broadband registration scheme, which went live earlier this month, allows consumers whose local exchange is not yet ADSL-enabled to register their interest in broadband. BT Wholesale has calculated the "threshold levels" of the number of broadband customers needed for it to be economically viable for a local exchange to be upgraded. If this level is reached, BT will upgrade the exchange. But different parts of BT appear to have different ideas over just how far the scheme can be extended. Speaking at the Broad Horizons Broadband Symposium in Wiltshire this week, Iain Duffin, a BT Retail regional manager, said it is unlikely to be economical for BT to upgrade enough exchanges to cover more than 80 percent of the UK population. His comments were quickly rebuffed by a BT Group spokesman. Threshold levels have already been set for 338 exchanges, with another 162 exchanges being examined currently. As well as these 500, BT has said it will publish targets for another 400 exchanges by September. The scheme has received something of a mixed reception. Many reports hailed it as a sensible way of judging broadband demand in rural areas, but some critics have claimed it is a delaying tactic and suggested that the thresholds -- typically between 350 and 400 users -- are set so high that many exchanges will never reach the targets. Even though the broadband registration database will record interest against every exchange in the country, some people fear that ADSL rollout will not extend beyond the 900 exchanges. It now appears that this concern is shared by some within BT Retail -- which has just started offering a no-frills broadband product. In his speech at Broad Horizons, BT Retail's Iain Duffin noted that if these 900 exchanges were upgraded then BT's ADSL network would cover 80 percent of its UK customers. "I think it's unlikely that BT would expand its broadband coverage beyond that 80 percent using this technology (ADSL), because of economies of scale," Duffin said, pointing out that it might never be commercially viable to upgrade remote local exchanges that have few homes connected to them. BT has often been vocal in the past about the problems of rural broadband, with chairman Sir Christopher Bland warning that -- without government help -- some areas will be waiting 20 years for broadband. BT Group told ZDNet UK that any talk of an 80 percent cap was incorrect. "BT has recently made it clear that it will register demand against every exchange in the country and will upgrade to ADSL wherever there is sufficient interest. This means there are no plans to stop ADSL rollout at 80 percent," insisted a BT Group spokesman. "It is fair to say, however, that alternative methods of delivering broadband may well be required at several exchanges where the distance limitations on ADSL come into play and also at exchanges where high backhaul costs may require a partnership approach such as the one developed recently in Cornwall. The important thing is to concentrate on the rollout of broadband in all its forms and not to focus solely on one delivery method -- i.e. ADSL," the BT Group spokesman added. A victim of its own success?
While some observers find it mildly amusing that there should be confusion within BT about its broadband rollout plans, it is not altogether surprising given the size of the company. In this case, it seems that BT is suffering from its recent surge of broadband activity. Since Ben Verwaayen joined BT as chief executive at the start of this year, the telco has been coming out with a new broadband initiatives seemingly every other week - from price cuts and increased ADSL rollout to Wi-Fi hot spots trials. At the same time, BT is hardly a company short of critics. With influential people such as MPs expressing concern about the company's plans, it is problematic to have staff expressing different opinions as well.

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