UK broadband gloom grows as targets recede

The Government is agonising over how it will publish the grim findings from its Broadband Stakeholders Group, set up earlier this...

The Government is agonising over how it will publish the grim findings from its Broadband Stakeholders Group, set up earlier this year.

The group finds that the UK is currently 10th out of the 11 main economies in broadband adoption. Worse, even if recommendations to improve this position are followed we will still only reach 7th place by 2005.

That is a major setback to the UK's avowed aim of being world's best place to do e-business by that date.

BT vehemently denies that it has dragged its feet on broadband introduction. It argues that 70% of small businesses are within 500m of a fibre connection; that the demand from operators for an unbundled local loop has evaporated since it became reality this year; and that adoption is an issue of content as much as of infrastructure.

Businesses do not worry about such detail. They have seen their German counterparts routinely using ISDN for the past 10 years, and enjoy nationwide DSL availability. To them, 500m is a long way. Germany will have one million DSL subscribers this year, rising to 2.6 million by the end of 2002. By 2005 Germany, with 9 million DSL subscribers, expects to have 50% of global DSL subscriptions.

Germany has truly benefited from its local loop unbundling back in 1998. The figures are from the CBI's German equivalent, the BDI, presented at a recent CBI meeting in London.

In truth, broadband is still a technology looking for applications. Being locked into narrowband for so long has discouraged any serious content developer. That is why less than 1% of pages accessed via broadband in the UK today are true broadband. Most are narrowband applications used over broadband.

At the CBI meeting, John Ashworth, who probably did more than anyone to try to save the indigenous UK IT industry as it slid down the pan in the 1980s, pointed to genetic engineering and defence becoming the real drivers for broadband content development.

Ashworth, a former biologist, said comparisons of complex anthrax strains cannot be made quickly without broadband capacity.

However, even this ill wind may not help raise the UK in the rankings.

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