Green shoots must overcome trigger-happy BT

We can't build universal access while BT has the power of veto

So you want broadband in the countryside, and you want to do it yourself. You might think the hard part is coping with protocols, hooking up the machinery and getting the people interested. But just when you've got all that sorted out, the low drone of a bomber squadron sounds from the sky. At the trigger is Bombardier Yossarian, the anti-hero of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, ready to drop a megaton paradox more than worthy of the book's title.

You want to establish a rural broadband community where it's not commercially viable? Fine, that's what regional development money's for. But they're not going to give our money away to people who don't know how to run things: that would be irresponsible use of community resources. So, let's see a business plan. Ah, that's a good business plan: sorry, we don't fund projects that are viable.

Or a variation on a theme: you want rural broadband, but BT says it's not viable. There's development money if you can get a plan together. So you set up a local action committee, go out and educate the community, rustle up the interest and turn your sleepy neck of the woods into a hotbed of desperados baying for their broadband. Oh, says BT, thank you very much -- as part of our commitment to universal access, we now pronounce you viable. Have a trigger target. And now you've got a target you can get broadband and won't need the development money, say the rural development agencies.

Either way, the community's reward for hard work -- and often considerable expenditure -- is to be parcelled up and either handed over to BT to be consumed at the company's leisure, or left on the shelf. Not good enough, not by a long chalk. It makes Yossarian's famous clause -- you don't have to fly if you're crazy, but if you don't want to fly you're obviously sane -- look like an exercise in Pythagorian logic.

This is typical of the UK's official attitude to universal broadband access. "What a good thing," says the Government. "We're all in favour. Let's think about it some more." But without a stronger, funded focus that covers the whole of the UK, this sort of haphazard approach will leave the market open for BT to cherry-pick any regional development that looks as if it might make sense, and to hell with the longer term implications.

It's doubly unfortunate, because not only does this limit the speed at which broadband will get out to exactly those rural communities which would benefit from it the most, it's stifling the sort of innovations which will fuel the next stage in the evolution of 21st century online Britain. Take the Broadband4TheDowns initiative, a small but lively outfit in Kent. Working in a part of the country previously decried by BT as insufficiently profitable to exploit, it evolved a custom wireless plan that fitted local needs -- bandwidth management that gave priorities to schools when necessary, and let others use the headroom when it became free. Community file servers were on the menu, and wireless webcams were planned to improve security in an area where policing is sparse and people isolated. None of this is ever going to be part of BT's ADSL service, because why should BT innovate in ways that it can't sell to its most profitable customers -- the urban business?

Now, though, BT's noticed the activity and decided -- hey! -- that it might deign to slap in some bandwidth after all. The economics have changed, and a fascinating, useful experiment in local technology is withering on the coax. This is unacceptable, and it must be fixed.

The first stage must be an unequivocable declaration by the government that access to broadband is a universal right. That means that broadband providers must be prepared to offer access to everyone at an affordable and non-discriminatory price. The easy pickings will subsidise the difficult cases -- that's one of the prices of universal access, and one that infrastructure companies have paid in the past. Companies should also be able to trade their responsibilities -- if a large telco doesn't want to supply a million people spread out across the green and lumpy bits of the country, it can buy off its obligation by paying for credits from companies that are prepared to do the work. This has two effects: it creates funding and stabilises the market. Assured that they have their markets, these smaller companies can specialise in inventing good solutions to the many and varied problems that confront rural networks.

The fact is, it is now possible -- and will become much easier -- to deploy a wireless broadband network given the sort of skills and level of funding that even small rural communities can manage. People have stepped up and proved this, and also shown how much more can be done with these tools than appears possible from boardrooms in the City. If we have any claim to be running a country where innovation, self-reliance and forward thinking are encouraged, the political and economic environment must be changed to at least allow such moves.