E-envoy backs broadband bid

July 27, 2001

Britain has to make sure it becomes the world's number one broadband nation - not least to underpin effective lifelong learning - but it will take more than just government action to achieve that goal, Tony Blair's e-envoy, Andrew Pinder, has said.

Mr Pinder told The THES the United Kingdom might be in the top three for internet use, but was languishing at the bottom of the top ten on the number of high-speed internet connections. "It is absolutely fundamental to the continued prosperity of this country," he stressed.

A national strategy for tackling the problem will be revealed in the autumn when the Broadband Stakeholders Group reports. The group, made up of representatives of telecommunications firms, the content industry and the public sector, has already told the government to stimulate broadband rollout by aggregating all public-sector demand. Only 50 per cent of households can get broadband through their telephone lines via ADSL software.

Mr Pinder thought regulations could preclude using Janet, the Joint Academic Network, for this task. However, Maxwell Irvine, chair of the Joint Information Systems Committee that runs the network, said in May that it would provide the backbone for all public-sector information technology.

Major action is necessary if the government is to ensure that Britain has the most extensive and competitive broadband market in the G8 by 2005.

Mr Pinder said poor demand for faster internet services is partly due to a lack of good content and inadequate marketing, but the cost of installing and running the service was the biggest barrier.

A simpler product with more online users could be one way to ensure cheaper entry level and stimulate demand, Mr Pinder said. He criticised the "cumbersome and slow process" involved in getting ADSL installed, and added that BT should drop its installation fee and providers ought to reduce the monthly charge to nearer the £25 per month levied by cable companies for fast internet.

Mr Pinder knows from personal experience how difficult it can be to get a high-speed internet link installed: neither ADSL nor cable is available at his Shropshire home and he is "in the process" of getting ADSL for his flat in London's Barbican, as cable company NTL will not offer cable modems in London until later this year.

He added that BT's slow response and the technology sector downturn has left just a handful of firms offering ADSL to residential customers. An editorial from technology website silicon.com is not optimistic: "Oftel may take so long to get BT in order that we never get proper, cheap ADSL in this country. We may have to put up with second-rate broadband for the next five years, stifling the growth of e-businesses, large, medium and small."

This is one reason why opinion remains divided on whether the government will achieve its goal of ensuring universal internet access by 2005 - one of the aims of the UK Online campaign that Mr Pinder, a former Inland Revenue director of IT, is in charge of.

As well as making Britain a leading e-commerce nation, UK Online seeks to put every government service online by 2005. All will be accessible through the UK Online portal.

Despite the cooling of excitement over digital television's potential, Mr Pinder said the platform remained crucially important. "There are an awful lot of them out there and they are often in homes without PCs, so if you can get internet access through your digital TV it's better than no access at all," he explained.

The broadband push will not succeed unless there are people with the skills to create compelling content and instal networks. Mr Pinder hoped that universities and the Learning and Skills Councils realised Britain needed more people with IT skills and were planning courses accordingly.

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