|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 1241Internet and the super-highway also offer a wider range of home-based entertainment. They offer an enormously powerful source of information. For the price of a local telephone call, one can connect to a global network that allows information to be extracted from computers in Honolulu, Australia and many other parts of the world. Although Internet was originally established for information and research, now businesses are using it to communicate with each other and with consumers. The information super-highway is much more than Internet. For some time, the United States has led in cable television, which is one of the major ways in which the information super-highway will be developed and brought to people's homes in the United Kingdom.
It is interesting that the United Kingdom has a broad-band communications network based on optical glass fibre cables which will be able to carry much more information than traditional cables, whereas the United States is primarily cabled with the old copper-based twisted pair cables. I am fairly confident that we shall have--
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor) indicated assent .
Mr. Shaw: I see my hon. Friend the Minister nod. I am fairly confident that we shall have the most advanced optical fibre information technology network in the world when it is completed. The network will be achieved by low regulation, in which the Government believe strongly. That low regulation encourages the development of the information super-highway and the United Kingdom's connection to the worldwide network.
There is some irony in that because we have been helped in this development by a number of companies from the United States and Canada. We must be grateful to those companies, which have been very supportive, ambitious and competitive, for the way in which they are helping to develop high- capacity, broad-band cabling which is bringing us voice, data and video capacity. It will enable telephone shopping, home banking, remote security and energy management to become normal services for many people who do not have them readily available at the moment.
The United Kingdom's lead will, when it is fully under way, probably result in the employment of 25,000 people in jobs that did not exist a few years ago. It will result in 60,000 miles of glass fibre cable being installed in the United Kingdom. For the majority of homes, the cabling should be complete by the end of the decade. I talked to some American congressmen recently at a Bow group event about which my hon. Friend the Minister knows; he, like me, was privileged to be asked to speak at it. The congressmen raised with me one issue that is relevant in parts of the United Kingdom--how we shall bring the information super-highway to the more remote parts of the country. There is a problem in the United States in working out how that will be achieved. There is a rush to cable cities, while many remote communities are concerned about whether they will be able to get on to and benefit from the information super-highway.
Column 1242The United Kingdom is also the only major country to allow cable operators to provide cable television and a full, competitive telephone and data service. In that regard, I am delighted that so far, the Government have franchised areas that cover 14.5 million of the 20 million households. Some 4.3 million homes have already had cable constructed which enables or will enable them to get the services that are available. Some 630,000 homes have telephony services installed and are using telephone services already. The investment to date is approaching £3 billion. The only significant question I have for the Minister is, when will Dover and Deal get that cabling? The constituency would like to gain the advantages as soon as possible. This is an exciting development which will join three major industrial areas that were hitherto thought to be totally distinct. Telecommunications will join television, and that combination will join computing. Computing will provide the power to give telecommunications and television a much wider range of services and the ability to call up those services interactively and actively in a way that has never existed before.
It will probably be a little while before many people use the system, one of the main reasons being that the industry is still working out exactly how to motivate people to use it and working out the criteria that will help the system to develop to the extent that many expect. The price is currently considered a little high for some people--although, given the number of people who have already subscribed to satellite television, the costs will not necessarily be enormous. One way to reduce them would be through competition in the provision of telephone services.
It has been forecast that between 19 million and 20 million households in the United Kingdom may have access to the service in the long term. That would require investment of some £11 billion or £12 billion. Many people who are not accountants will nevertheless realise that, with a 10- year depreciation rate, that means a cost of about £1 billion a year in depreciation alone. The industry's staff and running costs amount to some £2 billion a year, and if we assume a 50 per cent. penetration rate we can roughly compute that it will cost most subscribers between £200 and £300 a year to get on to the information super-highway and take advantage of all the available services.
The current television licence is about £84, but, as I have said, the potential telephone cost savings will largely compensate for the difference in cost. No doubt many people will want to take advantage of that opportunity. Some may not find the service user-friendly to start with, especially as a wide range of services is not yet developed; at present, such services require access to computer systems which may be rather technical in terms of people's ability to interrogate. But the industry is increasingly moving away from hardware and towards software development, and I hope that we in the United Kingdom will encourage a number of our companies to develop software products.
Much of the software development results from the fact that the United States started Internet some years ago, but I hope that many of our universities will develop sophisticated software handling of the information super-highway in the near future. Certainly there has been considerable investment in the United Kingdom, and I trust that that investment will result in consumer products in the not-too-distant future.
Column 1243We may ask why people should use the system. Sometimes it presents a challenge: at the conference that my hon. Friend the Minister and I attended recently, I found it quite enjoyable to challenge some of the industry's specialists by asking them why people should want to communicate through the information super-highway rather than--like most people--having a good night out in a pub, restaurant or cinema. Why indeed? The traditional British methods of entertainment and communication have been established over many hundreds of years and are very successful; certainly I do not want the leisure industries in my constituency, such as pubs and restaurants, to be done out of their trade.
Most people realise, however, that the new service presents a tremendous opportunity--not just for communications within the local town or county but for worldwide communications, entertainment and sources of information. The only question is whether the information super-highway can be made as friendly as a visit to the local pub or restaurant in good company.
The futurologists and the cable industry employees have not yet convinced the masses, and it will be some time before we see enormously wide use of the system. Indeed, it could be said that wide use is necessary to encourage wide use. If we really believe that there are business opportunities for the United Kingdom, we have to get out there and explain the Internet to people. I hope that this debate will, in a modest way, encourage wider use among businesses, children and many people of more than school age.
The many uses that have been identified to date for the Internet include entertainment and home video on demand. The Internet also has enormous potential for home shopping and considerable potential for home banking. There are also prospects for many Government services to be privatised using the information super-highway. There are opportunities for private individuals and companies to take on Government services and offer new ways to deliver them. One thinks immediately about the prospect of better services for the elderly and other home-based people. Care managers could be kept in contact through the Internet with those about whom they are concerned and for whom they are responsible. All that is required is a more user-friendly interface between the elderly person and the care manager.
We should not assume that elderly people are computer illiterate. Indeed, that would be doing them a great injustice. It is surprising how many pensioners are purchasers of home computers. Perhaps as many as 20 per cent. of pensioners have at one time bought a home computer, although the statistics are probably slightly distorted by the fact that many buy small home computers for grandchildren. Nevertheless, all Members of Parliament will know that an increasing number of pensioners use home computers to write to us. The letters are slightly longer than they used to be and perhaps slightly more well informed and well argued, too. They are also, thank goodness, sometimes much easier to read than when they were written in the traditional way.
Other Government services that might be better delivered by the Internet include medical services. Only the other day I saw that the information super-highway is being used in Oxfordshire by doctors who want to communicate directly and as soon as possible with
Column 1244hospitals about samples taken from patients and the results of tests. Information can be relayed speedily and efficiently to the doctors.
The Internet could also be used for education and training. It would mean that people who thought that they could not easily take a degree or who currently use the Open university but are restricted because of the reliance on standard broadcasts that have to be available everywhere in the country will be able to pick the university of their choice and communicate with it directly from their home. A university in Scotland, for example, will be able to take on home-based students from the south of England and students from Scotland can take courses at universities in the south of England. Such flexibility will mean that many more people will have the opportunity to study in ways not previously thought possible. The delivery of some of the Department of Employment's training and reskilling programmes is sometimes criticised for being expensive and inefficient. The programmes are delivered with the best of intentions, but in a standard package and that cannot be as varied as delivery by the Internet. I look forward to the day when the Internet is used in that respect. It is an exciting prospect.
When the Select Committee on Social Security recently discussed pensions, we were told that people will in future be expected to have at least four if not more employers in a 40-year working life. Therefore, constant retraining and learning is likely to be a feature and the information super -highway offers a tremendous opportunity to develop new methods to help people go through that process. So people should want to use the information super-highway. There is an enormous challenge in developing the services, and there are many aspects to that. One that people sometimes worry about is whether there will be information overload--and there have been problems in the past with the older technology. That is an especially good reason why the United Kingdom should be better placed than most, because by having an optical fibre network we can make information overload less likely to happen. Much more information can be carried in that way than by other methods that use older technology. On the information super- highway, and especially on the Internet, about 300 people may now post to what is commonly called a news group. There are often thoughts about what would happen if 100,000 or 1 million people wished to express their views to a particular news group. Of course, there is a risk that if the system failed it could result in alienation and disenchantment, which could lead to individuals withdrawing. So it will be important for the system to be flexible and capable of development--and those are among the features of the Internet.
The Internet started in 1969 and was originally called the DARPANET. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency in the United States was responsible for it as a military research project, the object of which was to enable a number of establishments involved in military research to exchange information by computer in a way that, if any one of the computers was lost from service--whether by accident or in war--all the other computers would still be able to carry on communications.
Column 1245By 1972 about 37 computers were involved in the DARPANET, and it grew and grew, and became known as the ARPANET. By 1983 the military had found that they wanted to get off the civilian system, as it was rapidly becoming, and develop their own system. In the Internet's short history the other major feature was that in 1987 the system suffered a severe overload when, because of the state of the technology at that time, it was unable to cope with the growth in the numbers of computers and users.
As I have already said, it is most unlikely that exactly that sort of system overload would be experienced again, because we are now operating such an advanced system. The United Kingdom has an especially advanced system, into which the Government have put a considerable amount of money. That is called JANET--the joint academic network--and it is now being developed as SuperJANET. I have had the privilege of discussing the system, which works well, with some of the professors who have been involved in its development, and this country can be proud of the fact that our system is probably technically superior to the system in America, and many people regard it as such.
The Internet now involves 30 million to 40 million people. Although in 1972 it had only 37 computers, there are now estimated to be more than 1.8 million computers connected to it. The Financial Times published a good table this summer showing the enormous growth that has taken place. The system is not only for academics and universities, and not only for ordinary people using it from their homes. It extends to businesses and many other users, including four coffee houses in San Francisco. I should add that the first Internet coffee house in London opened recently, and I believe that others are planned.
Every day thousands of people join the Internet--from Russia to Australia to Japan. Growth in the United Kingdom has been enormous, and my service provider, having given a pretty good service, nevertheless now responds with the engaged tone for several hours a day. I believe that the system is doubling its capacity every three months.
What do people do on the Internet? I described some of the services earlier. Primarily, the services on the Internet can be identified as electronic mail, information browsing using the world wide web servers, the ARCHIE servers or the data base searching techniques that are available.
File transfer is also available as a service on the Internet. One can download photographs from great distances. That gives rise to some concern because of the risk of pornography, but most people on the Internet do not have access to pornographic photographs which, so far, have been a minority oriented problem. The greatest use of downloading photographs has been for educational benefit. During the summer, I was able to download a photograph of Saturn from the NASA computers in Pasadena in California for the price of a local telephone call. The photograph was of great interest to me and, I am pleased to say, to my four-year-old son. It was accompanied by a short narrative, so I did not have to do
Column 1246too much explaining about the moons of Saturn, the details of which I had probably learned at school, but which I have managed to forget over the years.
It was a great experience to show one's son that level of information. He found it quite valuable because his school has carried out a short project this autumn on flight and space travel. Clearly, the ability to download a photograph of a planet, which had been taken by the Voyager satellite in the past 20 years, was quite useful in that process. That is one of the uses that schoolchildren in my constituency are now making of the Internet.
The Internet also has an amazing socialising aspect. I believe that at least one marriage has taken place between someone in the United Kingdom and someone in the United States as a result of meeting on the Internet. I do not think that that is the sole reason why many people join the Internet, but it is an interesting area where people exchange news and information. It is an area where chat and discussions take place.
When I tested how the Internet chat system operated the other week, I had the interesting experience of joining a chat group in the United States. I had a great problem because the chat takes place in a language that is sometimes rather difficult to understand. One has to learn about "smilies" if one wants to take a serious part in such conversations. Smilies are typewritten items that appear on screen comprising colons and semi-colons with little brackets that are used to make smiling faces so one can show whether one is happy with a comment made on the Internet or slightly unhappy, as happens from time to time. I believe that there are "saddies" if one requires them. The Internet is largely a happy place and most people on it have generally enjoyed its benefits and using it.
The key point about the Internet is that, while such communication has taken place between human beings before, it is now taking place on a world scale. One can talk very easily to people in Australia and America. When, as a member of the Social Security Select Committee, I had to draw up a report on the Child Support Agency earlier this year, I posted to the American Internet news group on child support and I asked for information.
I received information about the American child support system from all over America. In particular, I would like to thank the engineer with the PhD in California who provided me with some very interesting information about the Californian child support system, and the lady lawyer in New York state who gave me a good analysis of the New York state version of the American child support system.
Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): The hon. Gentleman is interested in the Internet and he is also a member of the Social Security Select Committee. He has been able to talk to America about the Child Support Agency. Can he communicate with the CSA itself through the Internet? That indeed would be progress.
Mr. Shaw: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. In the next few minutes, I shall comment on the way in which the Government have gone on the Internet. I am sure that hon. Members would like to have the facility that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Many of my constituents who come to me with Child Support Agency problems have not yet bought the modem, although many of them have home computers. It would have helped if
Column 1247the Child Support Agency had been able to take e-mail down the Internet. It would have been able to process many queries much more quickly and efficiently.
I congratulate the Government on going on the Internet with a world wide web server called "open.gov.uk" a couple of months ago. It has been enormously successful. About 100,000 people used it in the first couple of months. That compares favourably with the White House system. I understand that 45,000 people sent President Clinton e-mail in the first three months of the White House server being set up. That is a sign that people want to use that means of communication as a way of finding out what their Governments are doing on their behalf.
On the way in which we spend research moneys in this country--I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is not responsible for all research moneys; perhaps he will have a word with the other Ministers responsible--there is a strong argument that we should not spend so much on pure electronic and information technology research and that we should spend some money on setting up databases of Government information and other information that people might want on the Internet.
By facilitating the setting up of databases, we will encourage more people to use the Internet and obtain more value out of it. It is not that I am against pure research, but we need to consider ways in which the consumer orientation of the Internet can be developed for the benefit of the United Kingdom and encourage the development of a software industry that will search data- bases and use them better than has happened in the past, as the Internet has developed. I also pay tribute to the CCTA, the Government centre for information systems and the Cabinet Office for their development of the Internet and the world wide web server. It should be congratulated on developing a modern and well-structured series of world wide web pages of information. They compare very favourably with the other world wide web servers to which I connect myself. I am impressed that the information is well laid out and of such good quality.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, who recently answered my parliamentary question on what his Department is doing about the Internet, by posting the Command Paper entitled "Creating the Superhighways of the Future--Developing Broadband Communications in the United Kingdom" to the Internet on 24 November. Many people have found that to be an interesting document to search. I am pleased that the Department of Trade and Industry is taking such an active role. We should be delighted that, within the past 24 hours--before I came to the debate, I checked the Government's world wide web server--the Office of Science and Technology has gone on the Government Internet. Within the past week, the Defence Research Agency has gone on the Internet. Usage statistics for the Defence Research Agency on the Internet show that people from Russia, Poland and Czechoslovakia have been looking at the world wide web pages that the Government's Defence Research Agency has posted.
If there is a successor to the KGB or the security services in those countries, it is interesting that they no longer have to employ members of the staff of The Guardian to obtain information about this country. They can now dial through the Internet and obtain the information direct.
Column 1248The natural history museum is on the Internet. That is an extremely interesting page to which I hope to introduce my son in due course. Those of us with a European bent--of whom I know that there are many in the House--can retrieve a full history of Europe, languages in Europe and other detailed information on the Government's world wide web server. By pressing the relevant word on the relevant page using a mouse, one is transferred directly from the Government's world wide web server to the European union world wide web page.
I am pleased that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is on the Internet. However, I am slightly disappointed to learn from answers to my recent Parliamentary Questions that some Government Departments are a little slow in realising the benefits of going on the Internet.
The Department of Transport should examine the benefits of going on the Internet. A UK transport news group and a UK environment news group have been on Internet for many months, and I think that the two Departments could post a lot of useful information. Many people are interested in environmental developments, and the Department of Transport could post many of its cone warnings and motorway works messages on Internet. People could search for that information on Internet very easily.
In closing, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the wonderful project that is being conducted by local schools in Dover and Deal. I pay tribute to the schools which have come on line. I initiated the project during the summer, and Walmer school has taken a leading role.
A Congressman friend in the House of Representatives, Tom Petri, and his staff member, Kim Forsberg, who has assisted in setting up the project, have helped the local schools to connect with schools in the Wisconsin No. 6 district. Now 13-year-olds in my constituency are exchanging life style information with schools in Wisconsin and making lifestyle comparisons. I hope that the project will develop further and will prove to be of immense educational benefit. We intend that the project should work with the national curriculum to provide an interesting source of information.
On a recent visit to the school, I was shown the results of the children's latest project. They had searched the information super-highway using the word "Turner", with a view to discovering all the art work by Turner which is available on the Internet. They showed me a number of paintings. A feature of Internet and the information super-highway is that the computer delivered everything it had under the name "Turner". Therefore, as well as wonderful old English paintings, the computer retrieved a modern picture of Tina Turner. The male members of staff found that most acceptable, and it was a source of amusement to female staff.
The project has demonstrated that Internet and the information super- highway present many interesting opportunities which will add an extra dimension to education in this country. Children are no longer limited by books; schools in my area have an installed base of about 70 or 100 computers. The argument about whether schools have enough books has long since dropped from public debate in this country. Government resources for information technology are many times more than those spent on school books as a source of learning.
Column 1249I believe that Internet and the information super-highway are important because the systems will create jobs and assist in education and skills training. The Government have much information which people wish to access and I hope that they will be given that access in the future. The political debate will certainly be enlivened as more people have access to more information about the issues of the day. A very lively debate on political issues takes place already in the news group "UK politics".
Substantial further development will be required before the system is truly user-friendly. In the last few years, enormously rapid technological change has helped to make the system more user-friendly than ever before. We can envisage in the next 10 years a wide range of people in this country taking advantage of the information super-highway, and that will certainly lead to a considerable transformation of people's lives.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dove(Mr. Shaw) on his extremely well-researched speech, and on taking the opportunity to bring us here at this hour to discuss it.
My worry at standing to speak just before 4 am is lessened because-- probably uniquely--I am inspired by the fact that, rather than addressing a thinly attended House, I am probably addressing 30 million people through the Internet system. My hon. Friend undertook to make sure that his speech and mine were downloaded on to Internet. I feel that all of our words of wisdom this morning will get their just size of audience. The figure of 40 million Internet addicts around the world has been given, but I like to be conservative in these matters.
There are 50,000 known subscribers in the United Kingdom and, interestingly, 30 per cent. of businesses in the United Kingdom are already connected to Internet. I believe that the impact is fast and growing, as my hon. Friend said. It is estimated that, by the year 2000, Internet will be the largest single community of contacts in the world--larger than any European Union state. The dramatic impact and the potential of Internet are difficult to understand, but it is important that we access and take full advantage of it.
I welcome the initiatives which my hon. Friend has taken in his constituency. I shall look into the issue of when Dover and Deal will receive cable, but I hope he will follow my maxim about cable communications: that is, "Do not complain if the cable industry is digging up your street--complain if it is not." The technology which the cable industry can bring is dramatic, and it will transform the way in which many of us live or lives.
Super-highways--the other part of the debate which my hon. Friend initiated --have come about as a convergence in the area of multi-media, involving television and publishing together with data. That fusion is taking advantage of the cheaper telephone costs which are now available, the exponential growth in computing power and the dramatic fall in the cost of computing. It is an exciting revolution. My hon. Friend issued a few little challenges to me to make sure that I was up to date. I do not think that he quite called me an Internet nerd, but I shall have a word
Column 1250with him after about that. I can exclusively inform him that I have downloaded the Government's Command Paper on the information super-highways, which I issued on 22 November, directly to the mailing address of Vice-President Al Gore at the White house. What Vice-President Gore does with it is another matter.
I am also able to tell the House that I have my own e-mail and Internet address. This is, I believe, a first in Government. I am the first Minister to be on Internet, and my address is
"firstname.lastname@example.org". I shall be happy to receive messages--one hopes positive ones--at that address.
Mr. Taylor: Internet freaks may well prefer Elizabeth Taylor, but I shall do my best to smile. If the hon. Gentleman cares to access the Command Paper, he will see that my photograph appears alongside the opening caption. There is no doubt that Internet is also exciting to access when photographs of Ministers appear on it.
I take the issue of being on Internet seriously. As Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Technology, I am delighted to say that that address should work. If it does not, one can put a note on the internal message board, and I shall get the experts to look at it. Internet is an exciting development in communications and the telephone system, which is the main carrier, has now been adapted to take digital information from one place to another. My hon. Friend was absolutely right to talk about international communications being so useful, but it also worth stressing that when one accesses Internet, wherever one goes around the world, one can do it for the cost of a local telephone call. The cost of using Internet is therefore dramatically lower than it would be were other routes used.
One small point of interest is that the world wide web, to which my hon. Friend referred, was developed at CERN in Geneva, which took on the American technology and enabled the network to interconnect and to deliver exciting new multi-media applications. Those of us in the United Kingdom can access Internet via public service providers, BT and CompuServe. Internet is used not simply for data
transmission--texts or photographs--but for videos. One can pull down CD- ROMs through the Internet and digitally reschedule sound recordings: for example, songs. Yesterday, the "Today" programme broadcast how that can be done from CD-ROMs for the music industry. There are many other ways in which visual images, as well as a mixture of sounds, are now available on Internet and effectively free.
Internet is becoming the backbone of the information super-highways, and, although it will not be the only one, it is critical. I am pleased to be the closest thing in the British Government to Vice-President Al Gore or, in the European context, to Martin Bangemann, because I am responsible for co-ordinating questions on the information super-highway for the Government. I have gained an extremely exciting job, which has brought with it a steep technological learning curve.
The United Kingdom is in a strong position to exploit and use networking capacities. That derives from a strong user interest and from a strong supplier capability. As I
Column 1251have said, we are already quite extensive users of Internet, both as private individuals and as businesses. United Kingdom subscriptions are estimated to be growing at the rate of 20 per cent. each month. As there is no payment to be made and no register, it is difficult to make an estimate, but the estimates we receive are provided to us independently.
We have a long user history of network services--for example, the use of videotext and the on-line systems used by travel agents to book our holidays. The access to networks is normally via personal computers and the United Kingdom uses more PCs per head of the population than most European countries. We have 22 PCs per 1,000 citizens against a European average of 10 PCs per 1,000 citizens. Our usage is, of course, behind American usage. User numbers are increasing fast and people are looking for new applications. The supplier strengths are also important. One of the main drivers in that fast developing market is the PC and more than 40 per cent. of those sold in Europe are made in the United Kingdom. Our producers need fast developing markets and Internet provides one of them. Together with our competitive and liberalised telecommunications framework, that puts us in a strong position to develop the European market and win our fair share of business. I am delighted that at the November Telecoms Council the other members of the European Union agreed to liberalise both services and infrastructures by 1 January 1998. As we began our own liberalisation in 1984, we are, therefore, some way ahead. We wish to retain the advantages that we have derived from that.
We have been a favoured target for inward investment, especially in information technology and the electronics industries. That builds on our indigenously based suppliers such as ICL, Viglen and Acorn. We have major investments in personal computer production by IBM and Compaq. In total, in the 20 years to 1991, the United Kingdom has attracted 36 per cent. of all the United States direct investment coming into the European Community and over 40 per cent. of investment coming from Japan. That is critical. The UK is proving to be a healthy place for investing and producing within the information technology business.
The liberalisation of telecommunications has provided the right framework. It is essential that anyone who believes in the unrolling of the super- highways, which are difficult to predict and not a single mechanistic structure but an interconnecting and interlacing of networks, must at the same time believe in liberalisation. Liberalisation cannot take place against any other background. The Labour party needs to take that into account, as many of the other member countries of the European Union are beginning to do.
Mr. Cousins: That is a most interesting argument. Will the Minister assure that outside the areas covered by the cable franchises BT will be free to put broadcast entertainment down its lines? That would greatly promote the extension of the information super-highway and the fibre optics system to those parts of the country.
Mr. Taylor: I can give the undertaking that is to be found in the Command Paper that BT will be encouraged to bid for the future franchises for those parts of the country that are not currently franchised, using, where appropriate, its own infrastructure within the franchised area. If the hon. Gentleman is asking whether BT will be
Column 1252free to broadcast simultaneous entertainment on its national network, the answer is no, as he will recall from the Command Paper and the 1991 White Paper. The reason for that is that we have encouraged the cable industry and other services, including radio spectrum, to come in. The commitments that have been made to those industries are being returned in massive investment--£10 billion in this decade--to provide alternative infrastructures in the areas that are already franchised.
I shall return to the BT point later because the hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. There is a misconception about what BT is and is not entitled to do. BT is entitled to do everything, including carrying all the interactive services nationally, with the exception of simultaneous broadcast services, such as carrying BBC or Sky on its existing network.
Since the privatisation of BT and the liberalisation of the market, the price of telecommunications has fallen by over 35 per cent. in real terms. The take-up of basic telephone services has moved from an already high percentage to an even higher one. In other words, the universal service provision has increased since liberalisation rather than decreased. The figures have risen from 79 per cent. of households in 1984, when BT was privatised, to more than 90 per cent. now. The cable companies are contributing to this usage by linking customers who have not previously had a telephone. It is often forgotten that many people who do not have a telephone live in urban areas. As a result of the falling costs that are provided by competition, cable companies are finding that people are prepared to take a telephone for the first time.
BT is contributing to that. It has had a magnificent record since it woke up to the stimulating impact of competition; it has spent more than £22 billion since 1984 in modernising its network and continues to invest heavily. The cable companies, as I said, are investing £10 billion in this decade. The cable companies alone are undertaking 50 km of cable ducting per day--a remarkable figure. The United Kingdom is making substantial progress, therefore, in building out the super-highways.
The question is how we are using the networks that are being developed. E- mail is the strongest driving force--the ability to send quick messages and packets of information directly to someone outside one's organisation or home. E-mail is cheaper than other methods, for example the fax, which itself is usually cheaper than ordinary postage stamps.
Other people want to transfer whole files of information down the line, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dover mentioned that, especially in reference to the JANET and SuperJANET systems. The SuperJANET is fully broadband. Both systems enable academics and researchers to send huge amounts of data, including visual data, down the network.
Education is crucial. I am delighted to hear about the arrangements in schools in the constituency of the hon. Member for Dover. The cable networks and BT are also rapidly linking up schools so that they have access to the local loop and, through the local loop, can network around the United Kingdom. That will make possible new ways for children to do homework, and also distance learning, which is increasingly important.
Column 1253The university of Southampton recently launched a Master's degree course in information engineering. It is transmitted by e-mail and accessed wherever IBM employees can make best use of it.
Doctors are already using their network systems for prompt delivery of test results. Speed is often critical to a patient's health. The Department of Health is extending its own network links and a good number of UK organisations are in the European advanced informatics in medicine programme. An interesting trial of remote medical diagnosis is also currently under way in Powys in Wales.
Updates of computer software packages are being sent over the wire, which is easier than posting. In other words, if one is connected, one can now increasingly even update one's CD-ROM in realtime. In America, for example, a CD-ROM for American football is automatically updated through the telephone system, so that results of games currently being played are fed into the system. If we develop that in this country, it will be an incentive for someone who has bought a personal computer with a CD-ROM capacity to add a modem and connect into the network, so that, instead of being self-contained, that person becomes geared up to the network.
Only two days ago, Phone-Link, a Birkenhead-based information services company, announced with W.H. Smith and Son that it would develop an on-line office supplies catalogue. Office supplies could be ordered via the network, saving time and improving accuracy. I give those examples simply to show how the network is being rapidly built out and interesting ideas applied.
What the Government are already doing to encourage awareness among potential users was described in the "Creating the Superhighways of the Future" Command Paper, which was issued on 22 November 1994 and which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover said, I arranged to be downloaded on to the Internet. We shall consider other ways of disseminating Government information and I know that new ideas are being put into practice constantly.
The Treasury is also now connected to the Internet and is attempting to provide information. The Budget was made available on the Internet system immediately my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor had sat down.
The CCTA, for which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary at the Office of Public Service and Science is responsible, recently launched a server to put Government information from a range of Departments on line, and make it accessible through the world wide web. He was right to pay tribute to the work that the CCTA is doing. The Department of Trade and Industry has supported development programmes, which are using Internet to disseminate information and encourage wide participation by companies. One is "Computer Supported Co-operative Work", which is developing teleworking technologies and related standards.
We are also talking to industry about a further initiative in e-mail preferred, by which large organisations, including the Government, would opt for e-mail communications wherever feasible. The backbone of the DTI's own communications system is the Osprey system
Column 1254and I am looking closely to see how that can best be developed in order to go into the DTI's old building, which has been renovated, when the move takes place next year.
I am also participating in the follow-up to the Bangemann report in the European context, and the G7 Ministers' conference in February on the information super-highways which I expect to attend. In those forums we will study specific applications on which more emphasis should be placed. For the UK, reaching the small and medium-sized companies with competitiveness messages and building on our strengths in large and critical software applications will be among our priorities. I agree with my hon. Friend that greater access to databases should be a priority. There is an enormous amount of data in government that could be made more widely available.
The Command Paper highlighted the areas of multi-media services and applications that will play an important part in the development of the super-highways. Multi-media services combine still pictures and moving images as well as audio and textual information in a single digital bit stream. Substantial bandwidth is needed to carry all these bits, and that is one of the reasons why operators are developing broadband networks.
Many of the networks in the UK, the United States and continental Europe are being used to trial a range of innovative services, including home shopping and home banking, which my hon. Friend mentioned. An incredible number of American citizens regularly make financial and stock exchange transactions through the super-highways, something that simply does not happen in the UK. It has been one of the driving forces in the United States and the lack of the habit here has held back wider public use of the Internet.
We are on the verge of a great new leap forward in the use of the Internet through the various ways in which multi-media is now becoming available. The largest single publisher of encyclopedia is now a software house, Microsoft--an incredible development in a short period.
Together, multi-media and the use of networks are tending to blur the boundaries that mark one industry from another. It is affecting the competitiveness of firms in those industries. Opportunities are emerging in the form of new ways to reach consumers with alternative products. The key asset of modern business is accessing information, analysing it and making good distributive use of it faster than any other company in the same sector.
The DTI is taking a clear stance on multi-media. We have taken some other initiatives which I shall mention briefly. We have reorganised the Department itself to have a multi-media steering group and unit within the DTI to co-ordinate the Department's policies in relation to the sector.
I have established a multi-media industry advisory group to help me in my new task of co-ordinating all information. That group is made up of senior industrialists from the main sectors affected by multi-media--information technology, telecommunications, media, publishing, television, and so on-- and of individuals whose expertise in health and education will be a great benefit to the group. The group had its first meeting yesterday evening and we had a lively and constructive session covering an incredible range of matters. I look forward to subsequent meetings.
Column 1255The DTI is doing its best to ensure that we are looking ahead to see how multi-media can best benefit British people and businesses. We also have closely in mind the other matters which need to be looked at--regulation, standards and policy making on intellectual property. We also have a number of research and development and technology transfer financial programmes which can help to offset the costs associated with getting to grips with multi-media questions. The key point that we should bear in mind in this debate is that to meet the challenges that the United Kingdom will face in global markets, we must be much more aware of what technology can provide and then apply it through the super-highways in everyday life and work. There must be a greater awareness of these matters and a greater clarity about the business benefits so that we can fully understand how companies can gain competitive advantages. It is not often realised that if we make a phone call to at least one of our big national airlines, it is probable that we will be processed through computing centres elsewhere in the world, without necessarily realising that. That is a result of the way that communications technology has developed.
We also need to look closely at the payment systems. The integration of payment into the process of information will transform many of our shopping habits. It will also be a big indicator of how the industry is likely to develop. I know that that is being looked at in various ways in terms of Internet, or at least the super-highway network. Some of the experts in the City and in business are producing some fascinating ideas.
I do not have time tonight to deal with other matters such as security and intellectual property rights. However, before I finish my speech, I want to put into a better context some of the debate that followed the publication of the Command Paper. This relates to a point raised by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins).
There has been a suggestion that the super-highway will not happen in the UK simply because British Telecom has been prevented from conveying or providing entertainment on its infrastructure. That is simply not the case. BT was quite capable of bidding--as, indeed, it did initially--for any of the cable franchises on offer. It decided not to pursue that. In doing so, it left it open for other cable companies and their investors to take up the cable franchises, to invest in them and to build them out. We have made commitments to them that we will not undermine.
Column 1256Therefore, BT's position will not be reviewed prematurely and the date for review has been set at 2001.
BT is free to do virtually everything else that it is minded to do. I remind the House of the BT press release of 22 November, pursuant to the Command Paper, which said:
"BT will therefore be pressing ahead as already announced with multimedia investment where regulation allows it on commercially viable terms, including installing fibre to most businesses with five or more lines by the end of the decade, developing applications for education, health and community services, trialling new network technologies . . . and developing interactive television on demand services to the home."
I warmly welcome that. It puts in a much better picture some of the critical comment made in the press.
The BT director of procurement and research was quoted in The Sunday Times of 20 November--actually just ahead of the Command Paper--as saying:
"government regulations banning BT from transmitting simultaneous broadcast services over its network were no longer as serious because future services over fibre will be individually interactive and on demand."
I absolutely agree with that. It is the most exciting part of the super- highways. No longer will the customer have to wait to see what is delivered to him; he will be able to demand, choose and readjust the services on offer from the provider, whether it be BT, the cable companies or, ultimately, any of the other television channels. The interactive nature of the super-highways is the most exciting part. I know that BT will play an active part in its development, alongside the cable industry.
I hope that that puts the strength of the Government's policies in context. I have no doubt that, as the Minister with responsibility for technology and the co-ordinator of the Government's policy on the super-highways, I have one of the most fascinating jobs in government. There is also no doubt that industry in this country is responding well. We would like there to be more UK-based software, and the DTI is considering how it might help the industry. However, there is no question that, in relation to the rest of the European Union, Britain is well ahead of the game. If we were catching up with the Americans faster than we are now, I should be much happier, but for a long time there has been a different attitude to access in the home to information technology. The culture change which has happened in America will perhaps take time to reach us. We have nothing to be ashamed of but everything to gain from pushing ahead as fast as we can possibly go. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover on giving me the opportunity to respond to the debate.