Rural broadband rollout hits problems

One Yorkshire town's hopes of getting broadband are in tatters after ISPs failed to convert expressions of interest into firm commitments

Yorkshire market town Knaresborough has become the first part of the UK to fail BT's broadband registration scheme, after only a quarter of residents who had earlier expressed interest in broadband actually told a service provider that they would pay for a high-speed Internet connection.

This means Knaresborough faces a much longer wait before its local exchange becomes ADSL-enabled and local residents can get a broadband connection via their phone line.

BT is now urging disappointed local residents to contact them in the hope of generating the kind of grassroots interest that has driven broadband take-up in other parts of Britain, such as Todmorden.

A BT Wholesale spokesman said only 99 of the 400 Knaresborough residents who earlier this year registered their interest in getting broadband have now actually confirmed that interest with an ISP.

Worryingly, neither BT Wholesale -- which operates BT's fixed line network -- nor ISPs such as AOL and BTopenworld can explain this disappointing response.

"It could be that some people have changed their mind about getting broadband, or it could be that there was some fraudulent data in the system," suggested a BT spokesman.

Industry insiders have suggested, though, that ISPs are failing to contact people who have indicated that they would pay for broadband if it was available in their area -- which, if true, is further bad news for those people trapped on the wrong side of Britain's broadband divide.

BT launched its broadband registration scheme in June this year. It is an attempt to increase the rollout of high-speed Internet services across the UK, by allowing people whose local exchange isn't ADSL-enabled to show BT that they want broadband.

BT set "trigger levels" of interest for the exchanges on the list, which for Knaresborough was 400.

Once 400 Knaresborough residents registered their interest, which occurred around the start of October, ISPs had six weeks to convert 75 percent (300 registrations) into firm commitments. Now, seven weeks later, the UK's ISPs have managed to get just 99 people on board -- a conversion rate of just 25 percent.

Todmorden, which was the first local exchange to hit its trigger level, came close to not reaching the 75 percent test itself because many ISPs were simply failing to contact the people who had registered their interest. It was largely thanks to media pressure that ISPs got moving and hit the target within six weeks.

BTopenworld insists that it isn't responsible for Knaresborough's plight.

"BTopenworld had a good response. We contacted the vast majority of customers who had initially registered with us, and a sizeable majority confirmed their interest," Tony Henderson, BTopenworld spokesman, explained.

According to AOL UK, one reason for Knaresborough's failure could be the complexity of BT's pre-registration scheme.

"It's not an ideal way to roll broadband out across the UK, because it's a manual process. ISPs have to individually contact everyone who expressed interest in the first phase, ask if they want to order broadband, process this list, and only then does the information enter BT Wholesale's automated system," explained Jonathan Lambeth, head of corporate media relations at AOL UK.

"Clearly it's not an easy process, and there's more opportunity for potential customers to 'fall through the gap', perhaps because they change their mind or spend the money on something else. Or it could be that some ISPs just can't process the information in time," Lambeth added.

For now, Knaresborough has been returned to the BT registration scheme, which now shows that 229 people have registered their interest. This 229 is probably made up of the 99 customers who confirmed their interest with ISPs, and another 130 who have signed up since the trigger level was first hit back in early October.

BT also hasn't given up hope that broadband might reach Knaresborough, eventually. "We're keen to do something on a local level to increase broadband awareness, either through marketing or through a local interest group," said the BT Wholesale spokesman.

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