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UK plans universal access to high-speed Internet

ABOUT one-third of Britain's population does not have access to the Internet at home - a startling statistic that prompted a government promise yesterday to overhaul the country's digital infrastructure.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown outlined a 200 million pound (US$328 million) program that would ensure that every British home can have broadband Internet access at 2 megabytes per second by 2012. That's fast enough to buy products online and download most Web pages.

"Just as the bridges, roads and railways built in the 19th century were the foundations of an Industrial Revolution that helped Britain to become the workshop of the world, so investment now in the information and communications industries can underpin our emergence from recession," Brown wrote in an op-ed piece for the Times of London.

Roughly a quarter of Britain's 61 million people do not use the Internet at all, while nearly 3 million homes have connections that are too slow to download movies, shop online or easily navigate social networking sites. As many as 18 million people do not have any Internet access in their homes.

Unlike most other European countries, Britain still relies heavily on copper cables that can only carry data over a few miles (kilometers), instead of fiber optic cables that can transmit data across entire oceans.

That means people who live far away from the telephone exchanges that are used to transmit data receive a slow or erratic Internet connection. And most of those households are in rural areas or far from cinemas and shopping malls - exactly the kind of areas that could benefit from downloaded movies and online shopping.

Communications minister Stephen Carter acknowledged that investment in the Internet "has not been put on the same level as we have put other pieces of critical infrastructure."

"We need to start looking at a communications infrastructure the same way we look at a transportation infrastructure," he said.

Matthew Howett, analyst with telecommunications consultancy OVUM says the layout of Britain's towns - with its long stretches of row houses - may also be to blame.

Britons tend to live in low slung towns and suburbs around major cities, and the country does not have the mass concentrations of people found in many major European countries. Even London is a collection of villages that grew together. This sprawl gives Britain its unique character - but creates huge problems for laying out fiber optic cable.

The cost of digging up city streets, together with Victorian-era pipes that once were the envy of Europe, now hamper construction, accounting for 70 percent of the total cost of installing fiber optic cables in an area.

"Other European countries have a lot more apartment blocks so you can reach several people with one connection. In the U.K. we have lots of low-level houses so these local loops have to run much farther," he said. "The government has a role to reduce the civil engineering costs of laying fiber optic cables. Maybe coordinating so that when a water company comes to dig up the road, a telecoms company can put fiber optic cables in as well."

Britain is not the only country to try to expand Internet access. Germany announced a similar plan in December, as part of its first economic stimulus package and last year Finland launched program to make broadband accessible to everyone in one of Europe's most sparsely populated countries by end of 2015. India's President Pratibha Patil recently outlined plans to get 40 percent of people in the countryside online over the next five years.

"There is a problem about people being disconnected from society, if they can't get online," said Howett. "There's a whole range of products and services that should be available to everyone, not just those lucky enough to have an Internet connection."

The government plans to raise an annual six pound ($9.80) tax on every fixed telephone line to provide subsidies for Internet companies to deliver fast Internet connections to areas where it would not normally be viable. It also aims to get Internet costs down so no one should feel they are unable to afford an Internet connection.


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