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The Access to Broadband Campaign (ABC) put the contentious issue of bringing affordable broadband to rural areas under the spotlight in a one-day conference today.

The conference, held at City Point, near Moorgate in the City of London, looked at how to bridge the "digital divide", separating those with access to broadband from those without. More than one quarter (28 per cent) of the UK population lives outside the reach of both Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and cable modem access.

Keith Todd, chairman of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, said things needed to change radically to bring that figure down to between 10-20 per cent by 2005 and make the government's much-stated goal of making Britain "the most extensive and competitive broadband market in the G7 by 2005" achievable.

Speaking at ABC's Rural and Regional Broadband conference today, Todd described himself as a "revolutionary" trying to change thinking about technology among senior decision makers in government and major corporations.

But that isn't enough, he added. "We need revolutionaries at the grass roots level as well," he said .

Todd argued for a market-led revolution in broadband - rather than a state model along the lines of South Korea - in Britain, which he said could have far reaching consequences.

"A broadband-enabled Britain will reverse the migration of 200 years from rural to urban in Britain, Todd forecasted.

Get orf my LAN!

Much of the conference focused upon using wireless as the major "last mile" broadband technology for remote and rural areas. The conference provided an opportunity for delegates to share knowledge and experience, which sounds obvious but with much duplication and fragmentation of effort involved in the fledgling process of setting up wireless networks it's a much-needed activity.

During the conference concerns were expressed about the failure thus far of fixed wireless networks to fulfil their potential of delivering services to rural communities.

Joe Sonke, head of broadband fixed wireless access at the Radiocommunications Agency, said the UK regulator was committed to making as broad a range of spectrum as possible available for broadband provision. The 2.4 GHz (802.11b) band is now license-exempt, while there is only a "light licensing regime" in the 5 GHz band, Sonke explained. All 15 fixed wireless access in the 3.4 GHz band were recently sold.

Sonke talked about opening up the 10GHz band for use in wireless provision.

This looks promising at first sight but the failure of fixed wireless access firm Tele2 (whose customers have been taken on by FirstNet) and the urban rollout focus of winners of the 3.4GHz auction means fixed wireless alone is not going to bridge the digital divide.

Ian Beeby, director of wireless consultant WFI, told us that in his experience fixed wireless links were most often used in rural communities to give access to back-haul for community projects, as an alternative to leased lines.

According to Beeby, demand for rural broadband was been driven by tech-savvy consumers, often in high income brackets who can afford to enjoy the benefits of living in the country, and community projects.

Against this, the Radiocommunications Agency estimates that broadband wireless access can cover anything between seven-18 per cent of the UK's broadband needs.

Town and country

Well over the anticipated 150 delegates due to attend the conference today attended. Representatives from industry heavyweights such as IBM and BT mingled with smaller companies in the wireless broadband market, community groups and reps from local development authorities.

The Access to Broadband Campaign (ABC) was formed this year to represents the interests of UK consumers in advocating the faster deployment of affordable broadband access throughout the towns - and the countryside - of Britain. ABC was set up by four individuals, two of whom were involved in the successful Campaign for Unmetered Telecomms (CUT) and two involved in building local community networks. Today's conference was the organisation's first public event. ®

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