Setback for rural broadband service

PUBLISHED: 08:00 09 July 2010 | UPDATED: 09:52 01 August 2010

George Freeman

George Freeman

Adam Gretton

A campaign to improve rural broadband suffered a setback after it emerged that a Norfolk pilot to tackle service “not spots” had failed to get a single customer.

A campaign to improve rural broadband suffered a setback after it emerged that a Norfolk pilot to tackle service “not spots” had failed to get a single customer.

While both BT and its service provider in the area were at odds over the reason for the failure, a Norfolk MP called for the trial to be re-started with a high profile launch because of the importance to getting a workablke broadband service for the region.

Communications giant BT came under fire for its lack of communication last night after a trial to extend broadband connections for out-of-reach residents in the Wymondham area received no response.

However, BT countered by saying the responsibility to market the scheme lay with the communication provider, Scotnet.

The south Norfolk town was announced as one of 13 pilot areas across Britain in September that would use new technology on existing phone exchanges to broaden coverage from 7km to 12km and was seen as a solution to address one of the county's infrastructure “missing links.”

If successful, the Broadband Enabling Technology (BET) could be rolled out across the county to help other Norfolk residents who are out of range. But BT was yesterday accused of not promoting the new initiative as the deadline for the trial approached with no users in the Wymondham area.

The BET project at the Wymondham telephone exchange is set to finish at the end of the month, when BT chiefs will assess its success and the commercial viability.

George Freeman, MP for Mid Norfolk, said he was surprised that it had not been advertised and called for the scheme to be restarted.

“The people and businesses of Wymondham and Mid Norfolk could have benefited from this and I sincerely hope that BT do not use the low participation in the pilot as an excuse for not investing in faster broadband in our area,” he said.

Stuart Glendinning, director of Scotnet, which is providing the internet service in conjunction with BT Openreach, said the project was in danger of failing if it was not tested in Norfolk. He added that the pilot, which had been a success elsewhere, only had capacity to serve an audience of about 25 in the Wymondham area, but many more could benefit if every phone exchange was upgraded.

“Wymondham is one of the trial sites because there were people that could not get broadband and unfortunately no one knows it is happening. It is frustrating.”

“BT is evaluating the technology in a live environment and if it is rolled out, everyone who cannot get broadband will be able to receive a service. It is a really important trial for the UK broadband market,” he said.

The new signal boosting technology would provide customers with internet speeds of one megabits per second (Mbps) compared to the Norwich average of 3.6Mbps. People who sign up before the end of July will still be able to receive the service when the trial ends.

Chris Starkie, chief executive of Shaping Norfolk's Future, the county's economic development partnership, said the scheme also needed to be more affordable.

“We are keen for BT to promote it and market it more heavily and to look at the pricing. If it is a pilot, it needs to be competitively priced. If you do not know who to contact in BT it is quite hard to get in touch because it is an enormous organisation,” he said.

The setback comes as BT is set to upgrade 63 telephone exchanges across the country this summer to a superfast 40Mbps, but none of them fall in Norfolk or Suffolk.

A spokeswoman for BT claimed it was the responsibility of the communication provider, Scotnet, to market the scheme.

“Openreach has agreed with the industry to continue to pilot BET until such time as either the agreed pilot volumes are reached or the product is formally launched in September,” she said.

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