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E-minister rumbled by MPs

I say, I say, I say, when is broadband not broadband?

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Britain's E-minister, Patricia Hewitt, floundered in front of a group of MPs yesterday as she answered questions about the Communications White Paper.

According to a transcript of the hearing it seems Ms Hewitt isn't quite sure about her subject. Indeed, it seems the Government can't even agree on a definition of broadband.

In an e-exchange with John Maxton, the Labour MP for Glasgow Cathcart, Ms Hewitt appeared unprepared to deal with inconsistencies in the report - inconsistencies that one would imagine are the responsibility of her department.

(Editor's note:The use of bytes instead of bits and other technical innacuracies, like the speed of ADSL, are entirley the work of Mr Maxton and Ms Hewitt. Or the stenographer.)

Mr Maxton asked Ms Hewitt if she could tell the Select Committee her definition of "broadband"?

Ms Hewitt relied: "Broadband can cover a very wide range of rates.

"But you have a definition in the White Paper?" said Mr Maxton.

Ms H: "We have a definition and we use it to cover a range of speeds but considerably higher than narrow band frequency - in other words, from about 512 kilobytes right up to very, very fast always on Internet.

Mr M: "But I thought in the White Paper in one of the annexes it defines it as 2 megabytes?

Ms H: "That is one of the definitions we use but there is, in fact, a much broader range which starts somewhat below that and goes right up to ten [megabytes] and beyond.

Mr M: Let us start with 2 megabytes. How many residential homes in Britain have access to 2 megabyte broadband at the present time?

Ms H: "At the moment 40 per cent of homes and businesses are in the area of BT exchanges that have been enabled to carry ADSL.

Mr M: "ADSL is about 500 gigabytes. It is nothing like two megabytes?

Ms H: "No. It depends. It starts at 500 and of course, as we get local loop unbundling and as other operators start offering other versions of DSL, we will get much higher speeds, up to two and indeed beyond two, depending on the technology, the number of users, how far you are from the exchange and so on, and the quality of the copper wiring. We start from that figure of 40 per cent of exchanges already enabled with the caveat that obviously not everybody living within the exchange area will necessarily be close enough to the exchange. ADSL in particular only works within about three to three and a half kilometres. We also have about 50 per cent of homes covered by cable roll-out and of course the cable companies are now starting to make cable modems available, also offering speeds up to broadband width. On top of that, and I am sure you have seen the map we have published in that broadband report, we have now allocated licences for broadband fixed wireless access which potentially cover 60 per cent of the population, although in reality, as we say in that report, of course not everybody living within the licence area will actually be reached by those services. On top of that we have the growing prospect of fibre to the end user, although at the moment because of the cost that is really only a big business proposition; similarly satellite, which of course can reach anywhere but where at the moment the costs rule it out for anybody except big business, but those costs will come down. The upshot of this is that our preliminary analysis is that 15 to 20 per cent of the population are likely to be left out of the broadband market as it is currently developing and as we can see it going forward for the next three to four years. I am sorry that is not a one sentence answer.

Mr M: "It is not an answer to the question either."

Ms H: "There is not one number on this, I am afraid."

Shortly after this exchange, the committee adjourned for ten minutes while the MPs went off and voted in the House.

On their return Ms Hewitt asked for the opportunity to clarify her definition of broadband.

She said: "We would define higher bandwidth networks as more than 384 kilobits per second, current generation broadband as two megabytes and above, and next generation broadband as ten megabytes and above. Generically we incorporate the whole as being broadband and higher bandwidth."

Is that clear to everyone now? ®

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