Government 'interested' in universal broadband

The idea of forcing telcos to make broadband available to all could find favour within the DTI, according to a senior government advisor

E-commerce minister Stephen Timms could support the idea of forcing telcos such as BT to make broadband available to everyone in the UK, according to Claire Durkin, director of communication networks, broadband and Internet policy at the DTI.

Speaking on Tursday at Building Broadband Britain, a conference organised by the Broadband Stakeholder Group, Durkin indicated that the issue of extending existing universal service obligations to cover high-speed Internet services was under consideration within the DTI.

"I can tell you our minister is very interested in it," Durkin said during a question and answer session at the conference, in response to one delegate who said that he believed universal service obligations should be used to extend broadband coverage in Britain.

However, it is understood that there are no immediate plans within government to push the issue of universal broadband provision. "We're committed to creating a competitive and effective broadband market in the UK, including driving up availability through as many different platforms as possible, including DSL, cable, satellite and wireless," explained a DTI spokesman.

Currently, universal service obligations mean that BT must provide all UK consumers with a telephone line, and special price packages for those with special needs. These also apply within Hull to Kingston Communications.

Widening the scope of these universal service obligations to include broadband could force BT to speed up its ADSL rollout. It currently plans to make ADSL available to at least 80 percent of households by mid 2005.

Some in the industry, such as Ovum analyst Jan Dawson, believe that telcos should not be forced to make broadband universally available because take-up is too poor in areas where it is on hand.

According to latest figures from the BSG, 67 percent of the country is covered by broadband, but just 6.2 percent of households with access to broadband have taken up a broadband service.

Dawson told ZDNet UK News recently that if broadband were made a universal service then prices would rise. "With a universal service, customers who are cheap to connect subsidise those who are expensive to connect," Dawson explained.

Antony Walker, chairman of the BSG, agrees that now isn't the time to discuss making broadband a universal service.

"The day we start seriously discussing universal service obligation for broadband is the day we have achieved a successful mass-market product," Walker told the conference.

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