OFCOM 'will not help' rural broadband crisis

Oftel's director-general has told MPs that the Communications Bill probably won't give any extra assistance to people who can't get affordable broadband at home

The government's flagship Communications Bill offers little new help to the many millions of UK people who have no access to affordable broadband services at home, according to the head of Oftel.

Oftel director-general David Edmonds said on Monday that OFCOM -- the forthcoming super-regulator that will oversee both the broadcasting and telecommunications markets -- will not be in a significantly better position to drive the rollout of high-speed Internet services to more rural areas.

Edmonds made his comments as he appeared before the Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Bill.

Anne Picking MP, a member of this committee, asked Edmonds whether he thought OFCOM will be better able than Oftel to ensure that people living in remote areas of the UK are offered the chance to get a broadband Internet connection.

In response, Edmonds said that he did not believe it would. "In short, the situation won't be any worse," Edmonds said.

Edmonds added that under the universal service rules, such areas would continue to get a basic telephone service for the same price as the rest of the country -- even though it costs more for BT to build and maintain the necessary infrastructure in remote parts of the UK.

Picking demanded to know whether Edmonds thought his assessment was satisfactory, but the director-general politely pointed out that it is up to the government to decide what services should be available to the whole of the UK population.

"The regulatory obligations are what the government determines the obligations should be. It is the government that decides what the universal service obligations should be," explained Edmonds.

BT's ADSL network covers just over 1,000 local exchanges -- enough to make broadband available to about 60 percent of the UK population. Telewest and ntl offer broadband services to people who live in an area covered by cable -- but it is thought that between 30 and 40 percent of people are still not able to sign up for broadband at home.

Although satellite-based services are available, these are either considerably more expensive than normal consumer broadband packages or only offer a one-way high-speed connection.

This situation is causing increasing concern throughout the country, and is attracting the attention of many MPs.

Edmonds suggested that the Communications Bill might make it easier for people to express their concerns about issues such as broadband rollout through its Consumer Panel -- which will let members of the pubic advise OFCOM about major policy matter.

"It depends how this Consumer Panel is constructed, and how the consumer voice will be expressed. However, I can't see it being injurious, and I think it should be beneficial," suggested Edmonds.

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