Firms denounce government broadband plans

No broadband yet and no promise of having it any time soon without BT being forced to act, firms claim

Reaction to the government's broadband plans has been lukewarm as business and consumer Internet firms question whether Tony Blair's administration has any commitment to broadband Britain.

E-minister Patricia Hewitt and e-envoy Andrew Pinder launched the government's broadband strategy Tuesday and pledged to make the UK the best place in the G7 for broadband services by 2005. As a first stage to achieving this ambitious aim it is offering £30m to develop rural broadband services and is relaunching the auction for fixed wireless spectrum.

The timing of government intervention comes as pressure mounts on BT and Oftel to sort out the rollout of high-speed ADSL services. Unbundling of the local loop, viewed as a key component of creating a competitive telecoms market, has now seen nine players drop out and the wholesale service BT offers ISPs is under scrutiny following accusations from Freeserve and AOL that BT is unfairly favouring its own service provider.

AOL believes that if the government really believes in its commitment to broadband Britain it must first tackle BT. "There is no broadband Britain and the way BT is behaving there is no prospect of one for the longterm future," says an AOL spokesman. "The two biggest ISPs in the UK are committed to delivering broadband but can't because [we allege] there is monopoly market distortion from BT."

Both AOL and Freeserve are threatening legal action against BT for what they see as unfair treatment towards them and AOL believes the government should not underestimate the importance of the problem. "This is one of the greatest threats to the industry, consumer and politicians' vision of a wired Britain in the history of the Internet," says the spokesman.

Business ISP Mistral is equally scathing of the government announcement, claiming it is more likely to set back businesses which want high-speed access. Operations director of Mistral Karl Robinson believes the government has its job cut out to achieve its target.

"Britain is already behind the rest of the world in terms of broadband connectivity. The government should be thinking on a global scale rather than trying to regionalise the Internet," he says. He is referring to the government's plan to offer £30m to regional development agencies to develop schemes for delivering broadband to areas which don't currently have access to the technology. Currently that is a large percentage of the population and the government admits that nearly half of the south-west has no prospect of broadband in the near future.

The news that matters is not the puff, that BT expects to cover "half the population of the UK" with ADSL capability by early summer, and will have reached 70,000 subscribers by April. What Guy Kewney thinks matters is -- whether the various super-powers in the comms business can agree a way of doing business. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

Is broadband coming to your neighbourhood? Find out with ZDNet UK's Broadband Britain Guide.

Can you get high-speed access for your home or business? Find out with the ADSL Special

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