'Midband' will ease the broadband divide, says BT

e-Summit: Pierre Danon, chief executive of BT Retail, believes that ADSL will only ever be available to 90 percent of homes and businesses. But a new product could help the unlucky few

BT has unveiled details of a new product that could make high-speed Internet access available to 97 percent of the UK population. Called "Midband", the product will provide a connection running at up to 128 kilobits per second (Kbps), and although it will not be a true always-on service like ADSL or cable broadband, it will offer some of broadband's benefits.

Danon announced Midband at the e-Summit in London on Tuesday. He said the Midband service is being developed because even under the best conditions, BT's ADSL network is only likely to ever cover 90 percent of UK households. Midband, he believes, could push coverage to 97 percent.

"Midband consists of two 64Kbps connections bundled together to create a 128Kbps channel. It will not be completely always-on, but it will provide 'always-on' email," explained Danon.

Trials of Midband are expected to begin in March or April of next year. Danon would not disclose how much it will cost, except that it will be "cheaper, but not much cheaper" than BT Broadband, which costs £27 per month. He added that BT did not regard Midband as a broadband product.

Danon told the e-Summit he was optimistic that BT Wholesale's ADSL network, which currently covers 66 percent of the population, could eventually reach 90 percent. He said he believes that the existing measures BT is taking to address the broadband divide, such as its pre-registration scheme, would bring coverage up to 80 percent, with further progress dependent on technological progress.

These could include measures to extend the physical distance over which ADSL will work, satellite and wireless broadband, and mini-DSLAMs. "We believe that by mid-2005, broadband services could be available to around 90 percent of the country," predicted Danon.

Danon warned, though, the government and regulators also have their part to play -- and welcomed the speech made at the e-Summit by Tony Blair in which he announced that all schools will be given a broadband connection by 2006.

"Regulatory bodies need to really understand that this is an emerging market and it cannot be regulated by a heavy hand. We need smart regulation that enables competition that does not kill the market," Danon insisted. "We need to understand that making the strong weak will not help. We need to make the strong play fair, and we are up for that."

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