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BT Wholesale is to embark next month on a series of trials to test if it can bring ADSL to areas where demand is believed to be too low to justify the high cost of converting an exchange to broadband.

Currently, BT is looking to recruit upwards of 200 users per exchange to justify the investment of £250,000 - £500,000 it says is necessary in converting an exchange to ADSL.

However, if successful, the Community Broadband Concept trial would make it possible to bring broadband to an area with just 16 subscribers and at a fraction of the cost.

But there are big "ifs" involved in the trial and no guarantees that it will succeed. Unlike some "trials" which seem to be a done deal even before they get underway, this one really is a leap into the unknown, BT says.

The man behind the trial, BT's Derek Appiah, refuses to be drawn on a possible outcome of the trial.

He's worked on designing the experiment for months in a bid to come up with a new way of bringing affordable broadband to areas currently not served by ADSL.

Part of the new approach is based on simplifying the procedure for converting a local exchange to broadband. By using the existing infrastructure between the local exchange and the main network (known as backhaul), Mr Appiah believes this new approach can save between 25 per cent and 40 per cent of the cost of upgrading an exchange.

And using new kit that can support as few as 16 users per exchange, it's possible to see how small numbers of people could be supported.

However, there are risks associated with this approach. Part of that is whether or not the technology will be robust enough to support the demands made upon it by users. For example, it's possible that a few heavy users could make life hell for the rest of those sharing the exchange.

For that reason, only basic IPStream 500 services will be made available for the trial and even then there are no guarantees at this stage as to the levels of service users might experience.

There is also a question mark over the ability of this approach to accept additional users beyond the initial 16. Part of the trial will be used to assess how many users each exchange can handle before the service deteriorates.

If it isn't possible to increase numbers, for the sake of argument, what then? Would the service be rationed on a first come, first served basis? Or perhaps economics would come into play and it would be rationed by price? Who knows?

Technology issues aside, there's also the business model which needs to be tested out. The model relies on a "sponsor" - a development agency, local council or business - to help pay for the cost of converting an exchange to ADSL.

Sponsors taking part in this trial include the Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Gwynedd County Council and the New Forest Business Partnership. They -having to pay £7,000 each towards the six month trial.

This does not cover all the costs involved and although no firm figures have been set, it's highly likely that the true cost to the "sponsor" might run into tens of thousands of pounds, according to BT. And that's just for one exchange.

Then there are the ISPs taking part. Although the trial is restricted to one ISP per exchange - which means users have no choice of provider - there are concerns as to the willingness of ISPs to take part in such an initiative in return for a handful of customers.
Especially when they can tout for large numbers of customers in areas already served by ADSL.

According to Mr Appiah, it's not just a question of getting the technology right or securing the necessary finance from interested groups.

The entire approach of the Community Broadband Concept is under scrutiny and it all needs to work before this trial can be called a success.

However, if - and this is a big "if" - it does prove successful, other areas could come online from the middle of next year. Until then, though, it's fingers crossed. ®

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