A divide in broadband speeds could harm the economy if telecoms regulator Ofcom does not ensure businesses in rural areas have equal access to those in cities, business leaders have warned.
Competitiveness minister, Stephen Timms, said super-fast broadband is vital, and a delay in deploying next-generation connections could stall the success of the economy. But businesses outside major conurbations say speeds of current broadband networks are inadequate.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said Ofcom needed to facilitate investment in rural areas where there was demand. "Businesses have a need for a standard quality of service provision across the UK," said Jeremy Beale, head of e-business policy at CBI.
David Harrington, head of regulatory affairs at the Communications Management Association, said, "For the sake of our gross domestic product, Ofcom needs to get off the fence and take a positive lead in encouraging investment in broadband networks nationwide.
"Unless enterprises across the UK have access to equal speeds, the UK will be unable to compete for future inward investment."
Christopher Meacher, IT manager at Fold Hill Foods in rural Lincolnshire, said, "BT business broadband is at best providing 12.5% of the advertised speed, so why should we pay 100% of the bill?"
Alternatives such as leased lines that offer guaranteed bandwidth to subscribers are one option, but prices remain expensive. One Computer Weekly reader was quoted between £6,460 and £16,979 per month to upgrade broadband capacity on a leased line to connect offices in Manchester.
BT said the distance from an exchange and the quality of lines would affect the type of broadband that it was technically possible to deliver, but said it expects to offer connections of up to 24mbps nationwide by 2012.
Ofcom said it was concerned about the mismatch between advertised and delivered broadband speeds, and it is considering a range of measures to improve the information available to consumers.