An influential cross-party committee has condemned the UK government's broadband policies, insisting it works harder to ensure that high-speed Internet services are made available across the UK.
The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs slammed the government for allowing a digital divide to open up between urban and rural areas in terms of broadband availability. The committee blamed the government for relying on market forces to close the gap.
A statement from the committee read: "We believe that the Government urgently needs to close the divide. We recommend it now commits itself to ensuring that broadband is made available to all areas of the UK according to a defined timetable. We recommend government allocate adequate resources to support that policy."
The committee – comprised of hand-picked MPs – recommends the government should spend public money to get broadband into remote communities. It urged that funds be made available under the England Rural Development Programme to subsidize the cost of broadband in remote areas.
Market-forces complaint "There is a proportion of the countryside – generally the most rural and remote areas – where the provision of broadband cannot reasonably be left to the market place. Intervention is essential."
Reasonably priced and reliable broadband is recognized as vital for competitiveness and economic development by the government, which wants UK subjects to be able to access the gamut of government services using the technology.
A range of targets have been set to help the UK develop the most extensive and competitive broadband market in the G7 nations by 2005. These include broadband in rural areas; getting broadband to every primary and secondary school, GP surgery, hospital, and health authority in the UK. So far, government has invested £1 billion to get broadband into key public services.
Despite these efforts, BT has set only trigger levels at some of its exchanges. If these are achieved, 90 per cent of UK homes will be able to access such services.
This leaves one in ten households – usually in rural areas – in the digital cold. The Committee sees this as a threat to rural businesses and residents: "People in rural areas may not be able to receive commercial and public services via broadband, thus reinforcing the social exclusion already experienced by many as a result of their geographical position," it states.
Wireless option The Committee also heard evidence claiming wireless technologies to be the best technology for remote areas, where ADSL and cable are not economically viable.
Based in Oxfordshire, the Blewbury Broadband Campaign Group is working with a company called Invisible Networks to lease a line into the local area which would then link to users via wireless.
The move was required because the area's four villages – Blewbury, Upton, Aston Upthorpe and Aston Tirrold – have total populations of just 2,500, the local exchange just 1,400 lines, and BT's trigger level for enabling ADSL at the exchange has been set at 550 users. This forced the Group to look for alternatives to get the village online beyond BT.
Precedents for positive government action exist. On July 19 the Japanese telecom ministry announced plans to allocate a wireless frequency – 18GHz – to local governments so they can build wireless networks for rural communities.
The digital divide isn't just about the gap between urban and rural areas. Analyst firm Forrester has identified a clear difference in Internet penetration between North and South Europe.
It found that while Sweden, Germany and the UK have high Internet populations, southern European countries such as Spain have low ones. Spain boasts 8.9 million Internet users, 17 per cent of which have got online in the last 12 months; in contrast, Germany has 32.9 million people online and the UK has 26.4 million.
The divide is endemic on a global scale. In Geneva last week the World Summit on the Information Society met to decide what principles and action should be adopted to close the gap.
Summit The summit consists of 750 participants from various national governments, the private sector, intergovernmental agencies, civil society and the media. The event was hosted by UNESCO and the UN.
The President of the Preparatory Committee of the Summit, Adama Samassékou of Mali summarized the aims, that information and communication technologies "be put into the service of all people, regardless of language, culture, gender or geographic location."
He said: "We are creating a path from the information society to a society of shared knowledge that will lead to greater solidarity among peoples and nations."
Secretary-general of the International Telecommunications Union Mr Yoshio Utsumi said: "In the information society, no human being should be left behind." The Summit meets again in September, before policy meetings begin in earnest later in the year.
In Bangalore, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan also called for action to bridge the digital divide in a message relayed to the third Asia Pacific Initiatives on Information Society meeting there.
"The explosive development of ICT, its applications, and the emergence of a global information society are changing the way people live, learn, work and interact. Enhanced access to knowledge is rapidly becoming a potent tool for empowering the people and communities in their quest for new opportunities, dignity and a better life," he said.
Billions of people still have no access to these technologies, he said: "The divide between technology's haves and have-nots threatens to exacerbate the gaps between the rich and poor, within and among countries," he warned, urging action.