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Broadband divide widens in U.K.

Subscription rates for high-speed Internet access still skew in favor of prosperous areas.

Research firm Point Topic has warned that the use of high-speed Internet access in the U.K. is still skewed in favor of prosperous urban areas, and the problem may be getting worse.

Figures released on Thursday showing the top 10 areas for broadband use indicated that areas in and around London still dominate the charts, even though BT's DSL (digital subscriber line) broadband is available to about 99 percent of the population.

Wandsworth topped the national table, with an average of 25 broadband lines per 100 people. The lowest was Eilean Siar, or the Western Isles, with 4.9 per 100.

In some urban areas, broadband line density was boosted by the presence of small businesses that use DSL to get online. Analysts have predicted that the rise of telecommuting could boost broadband use in rural areas, as people choose to base themselves some distance from their place of work.

Point Topic's figures, though, show some big differences around the country, especially now that BT's DSL is proving more popular than cable broadband. Back when cable broadband was cheaper and more available than DSL, areas such as South Wales were among the leaders for broadband density, but this is no longer the case.

The analyst group also reported that it has carried out 2,000 face-to-face interviews and found that poorer families were much less likely to have broadband, despite prices having dropped sharply in recent years.

"Most important of all, the publication of DSL numbers for different regions by BT has shown that there are big differences in density between different parts of the country which are independent of social factors or cable competition," the report stated.

"Rural areas often have lower density than the suburbs even where broadband is equally available. Some parts of the country, such as Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and the Northeast of England, just seem to have less interest in the Internet than others," the report said.

Point Topic's report did not look into the different broadband speeds used in each area. BT is gearing up to speeds of up to 8 megabits per second, but prospective subscribers--typically those in rural areas--whose home or office is a long way from the local exchange will not get such high speeds.

The digital divide has long been identified as an issue that needs addressing. Before BT made DSL available to almost all its customers, it had been assumed that the limited rollout of broadband infrastructure was to blame.

The U.K. government identified the digital divide as a problem several years ago, but one rural broadband activist pointed out that people need a reason to get connected.

"The government has rightly focused on the mantra of 'Internet access for all,' but people need to have everyday work, family and leisure reasons for taking advantage of access," said John Wilson, coordinator for the Wales Broadband Stakeholder Group.

Wilson added that the Internet had a lot to offer those in rural locations, even if they weren't going online as part of their job.

"Market towns in rural areas are abuzz with conversation...the challenge is to create the online (medium) as a vital social space," said Wilson, suggesting that education projects and details of local services would be popular.

The top 10 areas for broadband density were Wandsworth, Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, Tower Hamlets, Windsor and Maidenhead, Chiltern, Mole Valley, Kensington and Chelsea, Islington and South Buckinghamshire.

Graeme Wearden of ZDNet UK reported from London.