Rural broadband pilot to be extended

Seven rural areas around Britain look likely to get broadband-enabled exchanges following the success of BT's project to wire up Cornwall

A pilot project to bring broadband to rural parts of Cornwall could be repeated in other areas of the UK if talks between BT and partner companies are successful.

Following the success of the ACT NOW (Access for Cornwall through Telecommunications to New Opportunities Worldwide) initiative launched formally in late April, BT said it is working with partners to establish a further seven similar projects in different areas of the UK. Edinburgh, Glasgow, Strathclyde and Dundee in Scotland; Cardiff in Wales; and Wiltshire, Swindon, Devon, Hastings and West Sussex in England are all on the list. These projects would result in enabling more than 90 exchanges with ADSL and could bring an extra 45,000 small businesses within reach of broadband, according to BT.

The original project in Cornwall is also likely to be extended with the use of "alternative technologies", said BT, to increase coverage. Of 12 exchanges that BT originally said were likely to be upgraded to ADSL, only six have been. But a BT spokesman said that with more than 700 customers signed up within two months of the formal launch, the project had been a resounding success. It is certainly more successful than a similar project begun in Wales three years ago, which saw as few as 12 customers sign up to some exchanges.

Details of the new projects are scarce. A BT spokesman could not say what alternative technologies will be used to extend the Cornwall project, but they are likely to include satellite broadband, which BT now sells nationwide -- but at a price (monthly rental charges start at around £60, and installation charges at £899).

As for the seven new projects, "At the moment a lot of proposals are at the discussion stage," said the BT spokesman. "Today we are announcing the fact we are working with various partners, but we are not being very specific about what they will involve in detail. That will be revealed in next few months and the time frame will vary depending on each area."

As yet, not even the funding sources for the seven new projects have been worked out. The ACT NOW project in Cornwall was funded by a £5.7m grant from the European Development Council, with a £1.7 top-up from BT and was expected to attract a further £2.5m from local businesses buying into the scheme.

Furthermore, European funding might not be available for all the new projects. "We are looking at a variety of sources, but it will depend on how each partnership works," said the spokesman. "Some areas might be applicable for European funding, some might not be."

But the project does appear to have the backing of the e-commerce minister, Stephen Timms, who has hailed the ACT NOW scheme as an example of how broadband can be provided in more rural parts of the UK.

"There are some interesting examples where public-private partnerships are addressing this issue, such as in Cornwall where EU money is subsidising BT's ADSL rollout, and also in Wales. There may be scope for more of that partnership approach elsewhere, with or without EU money," Timms told ZDNet UK last week.

Pierre Danon, chief executive of BT Retail, said in a statement that this latest initiative, together with two other initiatives also launched on Thursday, are aimed at meeting the needs of small and medium-sized businesses.

"We have already been successful in connecting SMEs to broadband -- we have more than doubled the number connected to 2,500 per week over the past two months," said Danon. "Now we must raise our game to another level. We are listening to our customers, who say they will take up broadband if it is made available."

To reduce the hassle of managing complex new technology, BT has signed up UK reseller Computacenter to launch a Subscription Computing service that will let SMEs access the kind of service that has, until now, only been available to large corporates. The service works on a "per seat/per month" basis and includes provision of IT infrastructure, management and monitoring and support.

BT is also working with one-time arch-rival Bulldog to run an SDSL (Symmetric Digital Subscriber Line) broadband trial in London from late autumn. SDSL means business users can receive and send data, at equal speed to customers and partners, or upload large amounts of data to the Internet quickly. The trial SDSL service will offer SME customers a combination of multiple voice channels and IP connectivity over a standard phone line.

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