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UK gov rules stall rural broadband scheme

DTI accused of misdirected advice

An innovative scheme to bring broadband access to the countryside using wireless Lans has stalled amid confusion about regulatory requirements.

Ray Bellis, technical director of Community Internet, is investigating setting up broadband access in the rural Oxfordshire village he lives in using wireless LANS.

While the technology is straightforward, and Bellis reckons the service could be profitable with just 50 users - far less than the 100s commonly quoted by BT before it will outfit rural exchange with DSL - he is struggling to overcome what he sees as a major regulatory hurdle.

In letterGuy Kewney's Mobile Campaign, Bellis explains: "As an ISP we operate under the Telecommunications Services Licence which is a class licence that applies to everybody. However, under the current legislation it appears that to provide services to more than 20 end-users using "self-provided links" we must apply for an individual Public Telecommunications Operators (PTO) Licence."

"Needless to say this is an arduous and above all extremely expensive process," said Bellis, who told us the license would takes months to come through and cost at least £40,000 plus legal fees.

Next July, EU directive 2002/20/EC (which establishes the idea that anyone who meets certain technical standards can run a network) will abolish this licensing requirement but until then Bellis has to put the project on hold.

Mike Conradi, a lawyer specialising in telecoms and IT at Baker & McKenzie, is however optimistic that Bellis might be able to go ahead with his plans thanks to changes in the Wireless Telegraphy Act, which allowed commercial use of WLAN services on the 2.4GHz spectrum.

"Generally speaking, as a result of very recent changes, you can now offer wireless broadband services without specific authorisation for any government body," said Conradi, who advised Bellis to seek legal advice.

Previously, public WLANs in the UK could only be set up and used if no money changed hands, and operators were supposed to obtain a Wireless Telegraphy Act licence. Operators will still need a Telecommunications Act licence. But as a result of rule changes made on July 31 that's no problem - anyone is automatically entitled to operate under a "class licence" known as the Telecommunications Services Licence (TSL) - without having to make any application, or even notifying Oftel.

DTI 'unprepared to give advice

Bellis said that, after talking to the DTI, his understanding was that these rules applied only to 802.11b wireless hot spots, not fixed wireless links. He expressed frustration that the DTI was "unprepared to give advice on what license we'd need".

"We'd need clear guidance and interpretation. At the moment, unless a minister gets involved, the project will be on hold until next year," said Bellis, who said he planned to contact his MP to ask for ministerial intervention to resolve the confusion.

Community Internet would like to lease a 2Mbps leased line into Bellis's village school, which would act as the hub of a wireless network involving perhaps six access points. With a 50:1 contention ratio, Bellis reckons he could offer high speed net access for up to 200 users. Pricing would be about the same as regular ADSL service with £100 set up costs and subscription charges of around £30 per month.

"ISPs all over the world are doing this," said Bellis, who said that the idea could be applied widely throughout the country providing a way is found around the regulatory log jam he faces. ®

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