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Broadband digital divide looms

People living in rural parts of the country have much less choice of broadband providers, are likely to get slower speeds and pay a different price. And with super-fast broadband on the horizon, some commentators think things are set to get a lot worse. If you live in a rural part of the country, you could be waiting decades to get the same service that your friends and relatives in the city enjoy. "There is going to have to be an acceptance that broadband will be faster in the cities. The model of equal access will have to be adapted," said Ian Fogg, an analyst with Jupiter Research. He added: "Fibre costs such a fortune to roll out that it may take decades to get to ubiquitous coverage in rural areas." Price divide Next year sees the roll-out of the next-generation of ADSL, dubbed ADSL2+, which promises speeds of up to 24Mbps, but like its slower cousin speeds will be dependent on how far away from the exchange people live. Unbundled services - where operators take over BT's telephone exchanges with their own equipment - allows rivals to offer much cheaper broadband but, because unbundling an exchange costs in the region of £30,000, providers tend to stick to urban areas. "Providers are loath to do this in rural areas where less people will be connected to each exchange," said Michael Phillips of consumer website "There is a growing digital divide as people in built-up urban areas are able to take advantage of cheaper broadband and 'free' line rental, while those in the country are left languishing on more expensive packages," he said. Some of the most popular deals already have difference prices dependent on where you live. TalkTalk's broadband service is available in 25% of unbundled exchanges but for those who live outside of the areas there is a premium of £15. Sky Broadband relies on other wholesale products in the places where it does not have access to unbundled exchanges while Tiscali charges £8.24 per month for line rental. Cable has also traditionally avoided rural areas for economic reasons and talk of a nationwide fibre network to provide speeds of up to 100Mbps would also have to be rolled out piecemeal. Universal broaderband? This is a far cry from the early days of telecommunications when it was expected that telephone services would extend from John O'Groats to Lands End. In the broadband world, there is no legal requirement for BT to make it available across the UK, although with figures estimating broadband reaches around 95% of the country, in effect it has extended its universal service agreement to broadband. "But if we move to fibre the notion that we'd carpet the nation overnight is logistically implausible. It is very likely to be a gradual process," said Peter McCarthy-Ward, BT's director of equivalence. He thinks the lessons from first-generation broadband roll-out suggest that the speed divide will not be huge. "Our experience with broadband has shown us that the gap that remains can be astonishingly small," he said. There will be other technologies, such as WIMAX, to take up the shortfall, and government initiatives are likely to play a role. In Scotland, for example, the Scottish Executive in partnership with telecoms provider Thus, has set up an initiative known as PathFinder which aims to hook up 1,260 council offices and schools in North and South Scotland to super-fast broadband connections. The PathFinder scheme was born of concern that Scotland could be left behind in the race for fast broadband. It is somewhat ironic that now many of the sites it has connected are ahead of metropolitan areas. At St Joseph's College, a 780-pupil strong secondary school in Dumfries, pupils have been enjoying an 80Mbps connection since June of this year. "The impact is immense on both teaching and learning. Long gone are the days of chalk and talk. Now pupils are part of the lesson," said Fiona Purdie, an English teacher at the school. "Previously if a whole class logged on to a site the page would take ages to load now. Now it is instantaneous. That makes a big difference to motivation," said deputy head-teacher Bernie Jones. But the new-found speeds are exposing some of the more patchy coverage children have when they go home. "At home some still have dial-up while we still have some pupils with no access at all at home," said Ms Jones. Radical approach In a small market-town in the Netherlands, a novel, community-led approach to next-generation broadband has seen service provider Ons Net roll out fibre capable of delivering speeds of up to 100Mbps to the homes of it 20,000 inhabitants. For this users pay just 15 euros (£10.70) per month. The scheme has now been extended to nearby Eindhoven and is being looked at a model that could be applied around the world. Michael Corbett of the UK's Community Broadband Network is planning to replicate the radical approach in Walsall in Birmingham. "The 'pitch' in Nuenen is not about 'bandwidth' 'fibre' or anything techie. Nuenen has an elderly community, consequently Ons Net aimed to appeal to a 75 year old woman who does not own a computer nor used the internet," he explained. It is local services supporting security, home care, events on the local TV channel and improving the community that are attracting people. In order to secure the necessary funds Ons Net was looking for an initial 35% sign-up rate. In fact it got closer to 85% and posted a £1m profit in its first year. Such schemes could play an important role in the UK thinks Mr Corbett. "It's worth giving it a try. It is better than asking Gordon Brown to sign a big cheque which he is very unlikely to do," he said. However the UK ultimately approaches the issue of a two-tier broadband nation, it is important to remember that digital divides are not just about getting access to remote areas, thinks Tim Johnson, an analyst with research firm Point Topic. "There is a social divide that is just as deep. 40% of the population don't have access at all and that number is reducing rather slowly," he said.

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