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Broadband's inspectors sport varied track records

The Trade and Industry select committee is determined to investigate where Broadband Britain is going wrong, but how many of them have fought its corner in the past?
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor
The latest group of MPs to put the Broadband Britain under the microscope have a mixed track record when it comes to addressing the high-speed digital divide.

Some have been close to the forefront of the push to make affordable broadband available to every home and business in the UK through their work in parliament.

Others, though, appear to have taken rather less interest in issues such as ADSL rollout and the creation of Ofcom.

The Trade and Industry select committee launched its investigation into the UK's broadband market last week. It is planning to cover issues such as broadband rollout by both fixed line and satellite, the retail market for broadband services, and the effect of BT's dominant market position on competition.

For committee chairman Martin O'Neill, and members Roger Berry, Lindsay Hoyle and Linda Perham, crossing swords with the likes of BT and Oftel won't be a new experience.

They all took part in an inquiry into local-loop unbundling in December 2000, at which O'Neill said he was appalled by Oftel's "complacent approach", accusing the regulator of being " reactive rather than proactive" over the opening up of BT's local telephone exchanges.

O'Neill, a Labour MP, also showed that he wasn't influenced by party loyalty by criticising the performance of e-minister Patricia Hewitt over the unbundling process.

The broadband divide has become an increasingly important issue at Westminster over the last year, with MPs that represent rural parts of Britain demanding to know why large numbers of their constituents can't get access to ADSL or cable broadband.

Several MPs, including Sir George Young, Richard Allan, Brian White and Derek Wyatt, have played a key role in parliamentary debates -- but none of these politicians serve on the Trade and Industry select committee.

Conservative MP Andrew Lansley is a committee member, and in July this year he opposed amendments to the Communications Bill that would have given Ofcom a specific responsibility to encourage the availability of broadband in the UK.

Lansley argued that such a move could actually make it harder for the government to eventually impose a universal service obligation that would force telcos to make broadband available to all.

Lansley, along with Sir Robert Smith and Henry Bellingham, are the only committee members who signed a parliamentary early day motion earlier this year that called on BT and the government to do more to aid the rollout of broadband networks in rural areas.

An earlier early day motion supporting the Communications Workers Union's Demand Broadband campaign attracted the support of just two committee members -- Richard Burden and Linda Perham.

BT has already welcomed the select committee's inquiry, and is understood to feel that it should not face excessive criticism over the UK's broadband divide.

Some industry commentators, though, believe that another parliamentary investigation into broadband isn't needed, as the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee has just published its own report into the problems of the rural broadband sector.

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