'Urgent action needed' over broadband divide

TMA 2002: Government, industry, and regional bodies must address the issue of broadband coverage - and fast, according to one of Broadband Britain's big hitters

One of the leading figures in the UK broadband scene has demanded immediate action to address the fact that one in three households cannot get affordable broadband. Keith Todd, chairman of the Broadband Stakeholders Group (BSG), warned on Monday that both the government and the telecommunications industry will come under pressure to address this broadband divide, which he described as 'not unacceptable'. Todd, who is also the chairman of ISP Easynet, flagged up the vital role that regional development agencies have to play in driving the rollout of high-speed Internet services to parts of the UK where telcos such as BT, ntl, Telewest and Easynet do not yet see a commercial market. "Over the next few months it is important that government, industry and regional bodies get together to discuss how we can target the coverage issue. "This is a problem that must be addressed," said Todd, speaking at the TMA2002 convention in Brighton. Recent official figures indicate that some 63 percent of households and 68 percent of small and medium-sized businesses can get access to broadband. Todd said that the BSG recently carried out an assessment of the UK from a broadband perspective. "We have identified parts of Britain that will not get broadband by market means alone," Todd explained. Both BT and the government have said that broadband rollout must be market-driven -- which has led to criticism from those who believe that this policy will mean that the more remote or sparsely populated parts of Britain may have to wait many years before they are offered affordable broadband. The BSG's survey appears to back up this view. Look Mum, no wires
BT chief executive Ben Verwaayen recently told ZDNet UK that BT, as a commercial company, should not be expected to spend money on broadband infrastructure in parts of the UK where it cannot see sufficient demand to make it economically viable. Earlier this year BT launched its pre-registration scheme, where people who cannot get broadband in their area can register their interest. BT has set 'trigger levels' of interest for many exchanges, and has said it will upgrade every local exchange whose trigger level is achieved. According to Todd, more still needs to be done. "I urge everyone I meet to register their interest with BT. Although this helps, it isn't a solution, and I understand that there is frustration about the coverage issue. We need innovative solutions, and I believe that wireless has a massive role to play," said Todd. BT is currently conducting a trial of mesh radio, which can be used to create a wireless broadband network within a community. Mesh radio does not use base stations to transmit with large numbers of end-users. Instead, the nodes relay signals between each other, which means much fewer base stations are required, making it cheaper to install. Wi-Fi could also have a role in increasing the availability of broadband, and a group of pioneers are already using Wi-Fi to bring broadband to the South Wales valleys. The Arwain project is a free wireless broadband network that uses 802.11b to bring high-speed Internet access to homes and businesses within Wales's broadband blackspots. Despite his concerns about broadband coverage, Todd did emphasise that the UK could enjoy a bright broadband future. "We broke through the one million figure for broadband take-up just a couple of weeks ago, and the indications are that we could reach two million by next summer. We're just at the start of this journey, and we need to accelerate the pace of progress by stakeholders working together," said Todd.

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