Government hopes ex-gas regulator can kick-start Broadband Britain

The Treasury will ask Clare Spottiswoode - who transformed the UK's energy market - how the take-up of high-speed Internet services can be improved
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

Clare Spottiswoode, formerly the UK gas industry regulator, has been asked by the Treasury to advise how the take-up of broadband Internet services in the UK can be increased.

The move has been reported as a vote of no confidence in David Edmonds -- head of telecoms regulator Oftel -- who in the past has been criticised for not pushing BT hard enough to open its network up to other operators.

Spottiswoode, who played a key role in the break-up of British Gas and the creation of a more competitive energy market, will present a seminar to Treasury officials in the next few weeks. She is expected to recommend that the supply of telecommunications services should be fully separated from the business of infrastructure management.

According to The Sunday Times, Spottiswoode has already spoken to the Prime Minister's officials about broadband, amid concerns that Britain is falling behind other nations in the availability and take-up of affordable high-speed Internet connections.

She told the paper that one reason that Britain is falling behind in broadband is a lack of effective regulation. "You could see back in 1993 that if you applied exactly the same thought process as in gas, BT wouldn't be in the situation it is now. We'd have much more broadband and we'd be ahead of the world in our telecoms industry -- and we're not," Spottiswoode said. "To me that's to do with the regulator not getting to grips with what needs to be done to change the structure of the industry to make it work more effectively," she added.

A recent report found that Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, Spain and Norway all have a much greater percentage of their Net-connected households using broadband than the UK.

Much of the disappointment and anger felt about Britain's woeful position in the broadband league comes from the failure, so far, of local-loop unbundling (LLU). LLU is an attempt to increase broadband competition by allowing other operators to install their own equipment in local exchanges and compete with the incumbent telco.

In the UK, very few phone lines have been unbundled so far and many of the companies that initially showed an interest have now dropped out. Some have accused BT of being deliberately unhelpful in an attempt to protect its market share -- a charge that BT has denied.

BT points out that it has spent millions of pounds on LLU only to find that the earlier demand has now largely disappeared -- which it attributes to the slump in the telecoms market that has made it much harder for operators to find investors willing to loan them money.

Later on Monday the government will publish the full report it has received from its Broadband Stakeholder Group. This group is expected to call for a significant reduction in the cost of ADSL services.

According to the government's e-Envoy, the chancellor, Gordon Brown, is unconvinced that there is significant demand for broadband services.

See the Broadband News Section for the latest on cable modems, ADSL, satellite and other high-speed access technologies.

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