Broadband: Has the government got it wrong?

Rural areas at risk of being left behind...

The government has been criticised for prioritising superfast broadband for cities over decent speeds for rural Britain. Is it time to address the digital divide?

Britain's broadband strategy couldn't be any simpler. The government wants the UK to have the "best network in Europe" by 2015, achieved through huge investment in a fibre optic network to bring superfast access to the masses. It may seem a little ambitious, but that's because it is.

The harsh reality is that British broadband's in a mess, and over recent years the digital divide - between super-connected, city dwelling "haves" and increasingly frustrated rural "have nots" - has been steadily growing and leaves many in doubt that equality will ever exist among web users.

How slow can you go?

We've all seen the adverts for superfast broadband, from Sky (

) Fibre Unlimited offering up to 76Mb to the extremes of Virgin Media ( ) and BT ( ) Infinity with their promises of speeds up to 100Mb. However, such luxury isn't available everywhere, and the statistics suggest it is only for the few.

According to regulator Ofcom, the UK's current average broadband speed is actually just 7.6Mb, and, while urban users may be speeding ahead, there are rural communities throughout the UK still dreaming of the day when they punch above 1Mb. So where did we go wrong?

Speed addiction

The House of Lords has attacked the government's plans, accusing ministers of being too fixated on speed and neglecting rural broadband requirements. A report published by the Communications Committee said that "misguided" attempts to keep boosting speeds would only widen the gaps.

What is important is the long term assurance that everyone will benefit

"What is important is the long-term assurance that, as new internet applications emerge, everyone will be able to benefit, from inhabitants of inner cities to the remotest areas of the UK." But a spokesman for Openreach, the division of BT responsible for a £2.5billion roll-out of superfast technology, told Broadbandchoices.co.uk that it's already happening, with BT alone making fibre available to a further four million homes while the committee has deliberated.

"This new network, which already passes 11 million homes and will soon pass millions more, is open to all ISPs [internet service providers] on an equal basis, and more than 50 ISPs are using it. Companies can also lay their own fibre using BT's ducts and poles should they wish, so there is plenty of room for competition.

"This level of open access is unparalleled in Europe and so the UK is well placed to have one of the best superfast networks in the continent by 2015."

Digital ghettos

While it's true that the dream of a superfast web is becoming a reality for some, there are swathes of the UK's rural population that exist well beyond the investment area. Dominic Baliszewski, telecoms expert at Broadbandchoices.co.uk, believes it is these communities the government should focus on.

"Closing the digital divide will not be achieved by attempting to win the broadband speed race. Whilst faster speeds are an important aspiration, they should not be prioritised at the expense of rural households being left in digital ghettos.

"Internet services are a national asset and rural communities have every right to access."

Time for change

A spokesperson for the Countryside Alliance, which campaigns to reduce the broadband gap, said the House of Lords is right to point out that the government's emphasis on speed is "misplaced" and that a different strategy would be needed going forward.

We need a strategy which enables our countryside to be part of the digital future

"If we don't want to see rural communities fall further behind, then we need a strategy which enables our countryside to be part of the digital future, which means ensuring we have a network that provides connectivity for all and will grow with the advancements in technology."

That's always been where the difficulties lie, as the internet and communications evolve at such a galloping rate. Rural broadband projects demand significant resources, in terms of investment and the time needed to upgrade the infrastructure in hard-to-reach locations.

Who's to say, for example, that by the time the Scottish Highlands are celebrating 100% superfast coverage, the rest of Britain won't already have moved on and once again be a decade ahead?

The debate rages on, and while campaign groups keep fighting for equality of access throughout our online society, there's a question that crops up again and again from the most sceptical of city dwellers - shouldn't rural folk accept slow broadband as part of the price they pay for an idyllic life in the country?

We'll leave you to answer that one!

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