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Faster BT broadband on starting blocks for Olympics - maybe

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BT is hoping to complete roll out of its faster broadband network by June 2012, to ensure the framework is finalised in time for the London Olympic Games.

The Financial Times reports today that the telecom giant's project, which it originally planned to implement by March 2013, has been hurried along by the Labour government and the Tories.

British politicians have expressed concerns that the UK is lagging behind other countries with its broadband speeds.

BT plans to pony up £1.5bn on a new broadband optical fibre network.

In October, the company, which had previously only publicly committed to one million fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) installations on building projects where the civil engineering costs of laying fibre would be low, confirmed wider deployment plans.

It said the firm would run fibre to two and a half million premises by 2012. A further seven and a half million lines would be upgraded to fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) services, delivering up to 40Mbit/s downstream.

However, that still only accounts for around 10 million premises - or about 40 per cent of BT's network - that are scheduled for upgrade.

At the time BT said the programme was ahead of schedule and claimed the expansion of FTTP would not bust its £1.5bn budget. Competitors will be able to buy access to the fibre, although BT will have greater control over pricing than it does over ADSL.

According to the FT, BT boss Ian Livingston said the company was hoping to build a limited extension so that it can be rolled out to more than the 40 per cent of UK properties currently targeted.

He also hinted that the Tories - who are widely expected to be voted into government early next year - would need to clarify with BT about whether UK.gov would cough up some form of subsidy to help the network to become a nationwide infrastructure.

"We need our politicians to decide how much of a priority fibre broadband is. BT is the only company currently planning to invest large sums in this area, but we can only go so far with our shareholders' money," said Livingston, echoing similar comments made by the company in the autumn.

The Labour government's Digital Britain report, which was published in the summer, found that there was an economic case to upgrade two-thirds of the national network to provide faster broadband services via FTTP or FTTC. For the "final third," it plans a 50 pence per month levy on every land line rental to create a subsidy pot.

The Digital Britain report envisaged faster broadband delivered to rural regions by a mix of subsidies and mobile technologies.

Meanwhile, BT's main rival - Virgin Media, whose cable network covers about half of premises nationally - indicated in October interest in expanding to rural areas with a trial partnership project in Cornwall.

The Conservatives have claimed they would axe the £6-per-year broadband levy for all landlines if they do win the general election in 2010, which has to happen in the first half of 2010.

Shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt said in November that he favoured letting market forces dictate investment. ®

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