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Superfast Broadband - Coming to a Street Near You?

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Did you know that fast broadband is one of the first things home buyers now look for in a property? Neither did we until we commissioned research on the topic and found that speedy broadband is ranked by house-hunters as more important than off-street parking as well as a nice local pub!

So it's a good thing we'll all soon be living the superfast broadband dream. Oh, you didn't hear? Well the government has stumped up a £630m investment and promised the UK will boast the best broadband in Europe by 2015. If all goes according to plan, superfast broadband connections - those offering speeds of at least 24Mb - should reach 90% of households within the next three years.

But wait just a minute - 90% of households? What about the other 10%? Will they be left to endure infuriating pauses as attempts to stream last night's EastEnders are thwarted by intermittent 'buffering'? The truthful answer, regrettably, is yes they probably will.

We've all seen the adverts for superfast broadband from the likes of Virgin Media, Plusnet and BT, boasting speeds of up to 100Mb, but the reality is that these speeds are most certainly not an option for all - they're not even an option for most.

The 'digital divide' between city-dwelling 'haves' and predominantly rural 'have nots' has been widening at an alarming rate, and this looks set to continue until the problem of truly universal coverage is addressed.

Closing the digital divide will not be achieved by attempting to win the broadband speed race. Whilst faster speeds are an important aspiration, they should not be prioritised at the expense of rural households being left in digital ghettos.

According to Ofcom, the communications regulator, around 9Mb is the UK's current average broadband speed. While it's hardly the 100Mb screamed on billboards, 9Mb is a speed which lots of UK citizens only dream of achieving. In parts of rural Britain you'd be lucky to get 1Mb, let alone the national average, or anything you'd describe as 'superfast'.

So it's disappointing that almost a quarter of the government's roll-out budget is being used to create 10 'super-connected' cities - including Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Newcastle and London - where speeds are already quite likely to meet if not exceed the UK average.

Broadband is a 'national asset' and everyone in the UK has the right to a decent connection, be they urban or rural dwellers. It's a sentiment echoed by the Countryside Alliance, which has spent years campaigning for universal access.

A spokesperson said: "If we don't want to see rural communities fall further behind, then we need a strategy that enables our countryside to be part of the digital future, which means ensuring we have a network that provides connectivity for all and will grow with advancements in technology."

Let's face it, the future of virtually everything is online - would it really be fair leave so much of the country behind as the rest of us enter the digital age?

We do, however, need to remember that companies like BT and Virgin Media are driven by what's commercially viable, and it's usually a straightforward case of supply being delivered where there is sufficient demand. In the same way that Tesco won't build a megastore in the middle of nowhere, broadband providers are never going to fork out the millions required to connect every home to the superfast grid. Let's face it, they'd never recoup the investment so why would they?

The government, however, has no such excuse. Its intervention was supposed to bring broadband to areas with no chance of getting it from the private sector. In reality, the plan seems to be more concerned with bumping up the country's top speeds - and boosting the UK's tech ranking internationally - than actually closing up gaps in coverage.

Then again, do we all have the right to demand fast broadband in our area? Urbanites might say that their superfast downloads are mere compensation for the elevated crime, the rocketing rents and polluted air they have to tolerate. Perhaps a slower connection is just the price you pay for idyllic country living.

One thing's for certain, if we can't agree on a course of action then our digital divide will inevitably get worse. Surely the public sector's responsibility is to offer solutions that benefit the wider population - not least where companies shy away from investment over fears for their profitability? The future of broadband infrastructure in the UK should be superfast for all, not 'superfast for the financially viable.'

While the £630 million roll-out is a step in the right direction, there are massive doubts hanging over the connectivity of our rural population. As a country we should be all in this together, but the sad truth is that under current plans 10% of Britain is being left behind.

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