Jane Wakefield: Broadband Britain, please stand up

BT continues to be the 'Little Lord Fauntleroy' of broadband while the government introduces its 'Heineken' approach to the issue

The government appears to have gone slightly mad. Maybe it is pre-election jitters, or perhaps it is just in denial. Either way, I recommend it book itself into the Priory immediately and stay there until it is able to say "BT is a monopoly and we must do something about it".

The latest madness of King Blair makes the Dome project look like a fine idea. The government, not content with burdening itself with a commitment to get all its services online by 2005 (admirable, but achievable?) has now decided that we should be the best country in the G7 for broadband as well.

Which again is admirable, but in the strategy to-do list announced to a fanfare last week there was one notable exception -- namely tackling BT. To everyone except the government, BT is absolutely crucial to the process and presents a less than shining record. It stands accused of deliberately slowing down its own rollout of ADSL, of dragging its heels over unbundling and of treating its broadband provider BTopenworld as teacher's pet while setting all the other ISPs lots of nasty broadband homework.

Broadband Britain without action on BT begins to look about as useful as setting up a sand shop in the desert.

They say love is blind and the government must really love BT to be able to overlook all of its faults and block its ears to the crescendo of criticism surrounding it. At the ISPA awards ceremony, attended by 500 of the companies that would love to be part of the government's wired vision, BT was booed and awarded the title of Internet villain. That should send some kind of message to the government, and surely can't all be down to sour grapes (as BT likes to claim).

Microsoft, hated by many, manages to win awards and praise for its software. BT, however, seems universally detested.

The government however flatly refuses to accept that BT has a monopoly. It is investing millions of pounds of its hard-earned money in broadband, the e-minister Patricia Hewitt is keen on reminding us BT cynics, and for those who don't want to use its services there is supposedly a thriving competitive market in the form of cable.

Cable may, as the e-minister and BT are fond of reminding us, pass 50 percent of houses in the UK, but there is little doubt that the cable companies see their pots of gold lying at the end of the TV rainbow rather than via Internet services. Consequently, cable controls just 15 percent of the broadband market. The rest is owned by BT.

Local loop unbundling, which has been interpreted by many as a last-ditch attempt to open competition given the failure of cable, is also going extremely badly. Intended to be a cheaper way of allowing competitors to roll out broadband services, at least nine operators have abandoned the process. They claim BT is being deliberately obstructive and that the process is far too expensive. In an interview with the e-envoy a few weeks ago, news of this crisis had obviously failed to reach him. "Crisis? What crisis?" he asked me.

To which the industry would be more than entitled to respond "Broadband? What broadband?"

The irony is that the facts are staring the government in the face straight from page six of the shiny blue brochure which accompanied the launch of its broadband strategy. On that page there is a map and the map more than anything illustrates the government's lunacy.

It shows whole swathes of the country grey and untouched by the magic of broadband. East Anglia is grey, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset are grey. Wiltshire is grey. Wales is grey.

From Middle England all the way up through the North -- with the exception of a few urban conurbations -- the map is green. Which on the face of it sounds more promising than grey but when you find out that green represents broadband fixed wireless coverage you realise that green is the new grey. For broadband fixed wireless hasn't even been launched yet and the attempt to sell off spectrum last summer attracted less interest than a Gary Barlow concert.

So colouring half the country green bears about as much resemblance to reality as representing the moon via a piece of cheese. It may as well have got an impatient toddler to colour in its broadband map. The cleverest spin doctors would be hard pushed to find a way of making the broadband fixed wireless auctions held last summer seem anything other than an unmitigated disaster.

Even Patricia Hewitt is not able to bring her usual confident spin to the auctions due to be held again this summer. "We will put the licences on the table and if nobody wants them they will stay there," was her helpful assessment.

The government faces the biggest divide in the UK since Thatcher drove a canyon along the centre of the country with her systematic destruction of the industrial North. This time the divide is between a massive rural/urban divide between high-speed Internet access "haves" and "have-nots". Plans to offer regional development agencies £30m to sort out this digital divide is like putting a sticking plaster over an amputated limb.

The amount it is prepared to spend is an insult -- some corporations probably spend that much on paperclips. And there is a silence about what exactly the regional development agencies are supposed to do to bring broadband to areas the technology won't reach. The government refers to it as its "Heineken policy" but short of getting the RDAs to invest in technologies that don't exist yet, the best the e-minister can do is suggest that rural businesses and individuals without broadband get together down the village hall to get access -- presumably via a very long extension lead.

When the government is reduced to that kind of suggestion you really know it is desperate. I suggest it might get more mileage out of its Heineken strategy if it gave up on broadband completely and just offered the majority of the UK who are cut off from the high-speed Internet revolution free pints of lager instead.

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