Digital divide splits Britain

The battle to broadband-enable the UK has largely been won according to a report by Ofcom. Almost every exchange in the country has been converted. Also, local loop unbundling is proceeding rapidly with almost half the country now able to choose an alternative supplier to BT.

After a battle that has lasted the best part of a decade, Ofcom now says that 99.9 per cent of domestic and business premises in the UK are connected to a broadband enabled exchange. There is a catch however. Not all premises within these exchange areas are suitable for delivery of broadband services, particularly at the higher speeds, due to local factors such as distance from the exchange.

Following another shaky start, local loop unbundling (LLU) is also picking up speed. Today, across the UK 44 per cent of households and businesses are connected to an LLU-enabled exchange. There are regional differences, though, with urban areas unbundled ahead of rural areas. Some 95 per cent of London households and businesses are connected to an LLU-enabled exchange with the North West at 63 per cent, and the East and West Midlands both at 49 per cent are next highest.

This tipping point for LLU will be good news for Carphone Warehouse, Bulldog, BSkyB and the host of other companies hoping to provide telephony, broadband and increasingly television services through the unbundled telephone cables.

Given the pay rates in the capital its not surprising that Londoners spend the most on their communications services. However, as a proportion of disposable income, London has one of the lowest spending levels with Northern Ireland and Wales among the highest.

The survey also shows that the British have well exercised thumbs. On average the British send 28 texts per week and only 20 mobile phone calls. The findings were most pronounced in Northern Ireland where people send on average 37 texts per week. Only Londoners made more calls than texts.

However, before the urbanites get too smug, the report also reveals that Internet take-up (dial-up and broadband combined) in rural areas across the UK is actually higher than in urban areas.

Urban areas have embraced broadband more quickly although rural areas are catching up. Internet usage in rural areas covers 61 per cent of households compared with a national average of 57 per cent although only just over half have a broadband connection compared with a national average of 57 per cent. Partly this will be due to the fact that the urban areas were broadband-enabled first with rural areas only enabled some time later.

Cultural differences have made a difference to the development of digital Britain. For example, the biggest take up of digital television has been in Wales with a higher than UK average take-up of 72 per cent, compared with a 65 per cent UK average, largely driven by higher satellite take-up. The reason appears to be that while sport did not feature in the top ten programmes viewed across the UK in 2005, in Wales four out of the top ten programmes were rugby related.

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