MPs: Government must subsidise rural broadband

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee has told the government to take its broadband policies back to the drawing board
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

The government's rural broadband strategy has been slammed by a committee of MPs, who have demanded that greater efforts be made to make high-speed Internet services available across the whole of the UK.

In a report published on Tuesday, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs condemned the fact that many rural areas can't get broadband today and appear to have little hope of getting it in the near future, at a time when broadband take-up is booming in urban areas.

"We believe that the Government urgently needs to close the divide. We recommend that the Government now commit itself to ensuring that broadband is made available to all areas of the United Kingdom according to a defined timetable," said the report, titled "Broadband in rural areas".

The MPs have recommended that the government should spend public money to make broadband available in places where it isn't economically viable for a telco to build high-speed networks.

The government has shown a marked reluctance to go down the road of subsidising broadband rollout, insisting that market forces alone will suffice. However, this argument has not found favour with the select committee.

"There is a proportion of the countryside -- generally the most rural and remote areas -- where the provision of broadband cannot reasonably be left to the marketplace," said the report. "In order not to disadvantage such areas, intervention is essential." The committee went on to recommend that the Government rapidly identify those areas in which its intervention is needed. It must, said the committee, "develop policies, in conjunction with Regional Development Agencies and local authorities, which ensure that broadband is made accessible in remote areas; and back those policies with adequate funds. It should, for example, make specific funds available under the England Rural Development Programme to subsidise the cost of broadband in the most remote areas."

It is unclear to what extent today's broadband divide can be bridged. Last week BT effectively drew the line when it announced another 500 trigger levels for local exchanges, taking the total number of un-hit triggers to almost 800. If all these are achieved, then ADSL will be available to 90 percent of the population

BT is unlikely to set many more trigger levels as it is simply too expensive to upgrade the remaining local exchanges, the telco has said.

Last week's Rural and Regional Broadband conference heard that wireless technologies offer the best hope of closing the broadband divide, but that backhaul -- the cost of connecting a local network to the Internet -- is still a major cost.

In 2001, the government committed £30m to fund rural broadband schemes. Closing the divide completely, though, as the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs demands, will cost many times more.

The committee has also proposed that the House of Commons debate the following resolution:

"That this House believes that affordable and reliable broadband access should be made available to rural communities as soon as possible; and calls on the Government to develop a strategy which sets out the funding to be made available and the steps to be taken, according to a clear timetable, to make broadband accessible to all."

Click here to read the full report.

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