All householders would have a legal right to a high speed broadband connection under new plans being considered by the Government.
The proposals would place high-speed internet access on a par with utilities like water and gas, which are already covered by legislation guaranteeing their supply to every home in the country.
The legal broadband obligation has been proposed by council leaders in response to concerns that rural communities are being left behind by the digital revolution, with residents and businesses in much of the countryside forced to endure sluggish internet connections.
Local authorities say that the Goverment’s existing “commitment” to provide 2 Mbps broadband access to all homes by 2012 is insufficent, and are calling for faster minimum speeds to be enshrined in law.
While many city dwellers will soon enjoy super-fast 40 Mbps connections, around 42 per cent of rural households are still unable to access the internet at 2 Mbps, because of the distance between homes and telephone exchanges.
Keith Mitchell of the Local Government Association (LGA), which has forwarded the proposals to ministers, said that fast internet was now “essential to everyday life” and should be viewed as a necessity rather than a luxury.
He said: “From doing business, to banking online, accessing information or just downloading music, high speed broadband would change the lives of people and boost businesses in rural areas across the country.”
If the proposals are accepted by John Denham, the secretary of state for communities and local government, and ministers at the Department of Innovation and Business, Britain would become one of the first countries in the world to oblige internet service providers to deliver fast broadband. Finland passed a law guaranteeing 1Mps connections in October last year.
The plans were shortlisted by the LGA for consideration by ministers after being selected from more than 300 ideas to improve local life drawn up by councils across the country.
Christopher Snowling, cabinet member for health and community at Mid Sussex District Council which originally proposed the new law, said that guaranteed broadband speeds would help close the digital divide between rural and urban areas.
“People living in rural areas deserve the same quality of internet connection as those living in major towns and cities. Better broadband internet would encourage commuters to work from home which would cut traffic and CO2 emissions,” he said.
“Faster internet speeds will allow rural businesses to compete on a more level playing field with businesses in urban areas and make sure school children in rural areas are not disadvantaged by not being able to access information online.”
The Telegraph has launched a campaign for a better deal for broadband users in rural areas to ensure they do not miss out on vital services and business opportunities.
But the Government has been reluctant to make firm commitments to minimum broadband speeds because of the costs of improving networks in rural areas. The cost of installing the fibre optic lines required for super-fast broadband to all homes has been estimated at up to £30 billion.
But last June Gordon Brown conceded that more must be done to help rural businesses cut off from the benefits of the web, acknowledging that “a fast internet connection is now seen by most of the public as an essential service, as indispensable as electricity, gas and water”.
A Government spokesman said: “The Government remains absolutely committed to improving the lives of people in both urban and rural communities. We will carefully consider the full shortlist of proposals when it is received from the LGA.
“We don’t want rural Britain to miss out on the social and economic benefits of quality broadband, which is why the Universal Service Commitment of 2Mbps set out in the Digital Britain White Paper aims to provide good quality broadband to all parts of the UK.
“We believe this commitment achieves the best possible balance between faster services and affordability. Our plans foresee a fast roll-out of 2Mbps by 2012, after which our efforts and resources will focus on enabling Next Generation Access to most of the UK by 2017, providing much higher speeds of 40Mbps or more.”