MPs worried by broadband divide

Westminster politicians are increasingly annoyed that many rural areas have no access to affordable broadband, and they'd like Douglas Alexander to do more about it

MPs have called on the government to do more to address the lack of broadband in rural areas. There is growing concern that many parts of the UK will suffer significant and long-term economic damage because businesses and homes cannot get access to reasonably priced high-speed Internet access. Over 30 percent of the UK population cannot get affordable broadband, according to official figures. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, MP for Cotswold, wants the government to take action to ensure that broadband infrastructure is rolled out faster in rural areas. Speaking in parliament on Thursday, Clifton-Brown said he had been told that certain parts of his constituency might not get broadband until around 2010. "Will that not create a technological apartheid?" asked Clifton-Brown. "Businesses (that need) broadband will have to move away from those areas, because they will not be able to receive it." In response, e-commerce minister Douglas Alexander said that some parts of the Cotswolds already had access to broadband both from BT and from cable companies, but acknowledged that it is important to roll out broadband to more parts of the UK. BT has broadband-enabled some 1010 of its 5,000 local exchanges -- extending coverage to around 60 percent of the UK population -- and is planning to upgrade another 100 by the end of May. The company has said it is not economically viable for it to install its ADSL technology in more rural areas yet, as it believes there is not sufficient demand to justify the cost. BT is currently working with some rural development agencies to see if they would subsidise further broadband rollout. Broadband divide
MPs representing rural and less densely populated areas are very worried, though, that their constituents are going to end up on the wrong side of the broadband divide. There is a growing belief, among members of all political parties, that some form of state intervention could be necessary. John Thurso, MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, fears that remote areas such as the Scottish Highlands will never get affordable broadband without government assistance. BT has launched a satellite broadband service that is intended for small business in places such as Scotland, but it costs £59.99 (ex. VAT) per month on top of an installation fee of at least £899 (ex. VAT). Thurso asked Alexander whether he agreed that the private market alone will never bring broadband to areas such as his constituency. Alexander said he welcomed BT's satellite service, and added later that he believes the high prices might fall soon. "In the months and years to come, we will see the price reductions that we are already seeing in ADSL services," claimed Alexander. The DTI recently committed £30m to promote broadband in rural areas. This money will be spend on a variety of projects, including creating a broadband town and funding research into wireless networks for villages. However, as the select committee for culture, media and sport warned this week, "...none of this fund, for all it might achieve, has yet been spent".

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