Previous Section Home Page

Sir Michael Marshall: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am prompted to say that I should have declared an interest in my speech since I am an adviser to Cable and Wireless.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Thank you very much.

5.39 pm

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport): I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to this important debate. Many people like myself do not fully understand the complexities of the new technology, especially

Column 937

broadband. It was, however, explained to me that optical fibres were like a man or a woman flashing down a dark hole a torch carrying millions of Morse messages per second, and that each flash had multiple purposes. I am grateful for that explanation. I now understand. [Laughter.]

Mr. Caborn: What was the message?

Ms Coffey: What is the message? That is the question. Although I may not understand the exact technicalities, I understand that we are facing an enormous revolution in our working, leisure and even shopping practices, with all the involved possibilities for social change, and all the unpredictable consequences of it.

As the hon. Member who represents Stockport, which is in the heart of the north-west, I am all too aware that Stockport was at the heart of the original industrial revolution. One can still see the remains of that revolution in Stockport; the great cotton and engineering mills which are now empty. I shall refrain, however, from making any party political point. It is clear that that industrial revolution is over, but it has left a legacy of bitterness and anger. In its wake, the first industrial revolution brought wealth to some, and poverty, misery and oppression to others. As a society, we are still suffering the consequences.

Looking to the future, and to the second industrial revolution that will occur through this new technology, like many hon. Members, I think that we would be very foolish to let history repeat itself. The new technology gives us all a chance to give genuine equal opportunity to all members of our society. That is why I think that universal access to the services which have yet to be developed must be at the heart of the debate.

Nobody can second-guess what those services may or may not be and which of them will be successful. Will tele-shopping take off? Will tele-working take off? How many people will take advantage of videophones? Nobody knows about future services, but we know about the availability of the present infrastructure. Ensuring universal access to that infrastructure would lay the basis for ensuring universal access to the services which have yet to be delivered. NYNEX Cablecomms is cabling Stockport, and I have had the usual complaints about sub-contractors digging up things that they should not and tree roots being threatened. I must say, however, that NYNEX has always been very helpful in my communications with it, and it has also contributed to the community by providing grants to local groups and to the local football team, Stockport County, which is in need of some help. I have not managed, however, to get from NYNEX--this is absolutely crucial--a commitment to cable every school in my constituency.

I welcomed the announcement last week by the Cable Communications Association to give a standard free link up for every school passed by, but it has not given a commitment to pass by every school. That commitment to a free link, therefore, is meaningless to ensuring universal access unless every school is linked. Any school outside that network, should broadband be needed in future to deliver services, would be seriously disadvantaged.

I strongly and passionately believe that the technology which is being developed is a means of ensuring that every child in every education authority is offered the

Column 938

same opportunity. For example, because of the way in which schools are funded, more pupils means more money for the school. The more money schools get, the more teachers they can employ, and the more specialist teachers they can employ.

If there were a link between schools, it would be possible for every school in a borough to take advantage of a specialist music lesson and to give all children equal access, irrespective of the school that they attended. I passionately believe that in this technology there is enormous potential to ensure equal educational access for all children.

A difficulty arises because there is already a telecommunications network. Although I welcome BT's offer to come to Stockport to discuss the projects that it is already implementing in rural areas, which sound very exciting, I cannot second-guess whether the existing telecommunications system will be able to take the available services in future, or whether a broadband infrastructure will be needed. The Minister will be aware of my concern, because, when he came to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry and showed what I thought was an admirable commitment to universal access in principle, I raised the matter with him. I ask him, therefore, to make it quite clear that it is not good enough for the Cable Communications Association to offer a free standard link. It must commit itself to link up every school if universal access is to mean anything. If the association makes that commitment, it would make a really positive contribution to the community, which would be greatly welcomed. On a slightly different issue, the Minister is probably aware that there is much concern about the kind of films and other material which goes out on television--although it is, of course, subject to control. I believe that what consenting adults do, or what consenting adults watch other consenting adults do, is a matter for adults. The difficulty is that children may sometimes have access to such material or may be involved in the making of it, which is not acceptable to many of us. This is a difficult issue, because it is not easy to control material on the Internet. The issue needs to be not only addressed by the Government but raised at a G7 summit. It would be helpful if, in responding to the debate, the Minister could say what progress has been made, or indicate how he thinks we could ensure that, given that individuals have the right to watch what they like, we can protect young children from being exposed to such material and being used in it. We must ensure that there is not a market for the use of children in making pornographic material for adults to view. I would be grateful for his response.

5.47 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I shall undertake not to speak for quite as long as I did last night, because I know that at least one other hon. Member wants to speak. I speak as a member of the Select Committee on Information. Like the Minister, I feel that I am occasionally attacked by hon. Members. I plead not guilty, as I cannot be responsible for the sins of my forefathers. Several important things are happening in the House. Hon. Members will have noticed a response to a parliamentary question that I tabled a couple of days ago,

Column 939

notifying the House of the merger of some of the departmental responsibilities as a result of new technology. We are now experimenting seriously with getting Hansard on line. A new tool called Cello is now available to provide a very detailed and rapid search of Members' speeches within minutes of them making those speeches. Thanks to the co-operation between the staff of Hansard, the Library and the Computer Office, and the merging of technologies between Departments, important developments are being made. The latest is a hypertext search facility, which will be an extremely powerful tool for all hon. Members.

Mention has been made of the importance of getting House documents on to the Internet. If the Government and the House really believe in open government, they must, by definition, place documents on the Internet.

I understand--this somewhat pre-empts the first sentence of the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn)--that the Finance and Services Committee discussed a proposal last night from the Information Committee to start linking the House on the Internet. That is a wonderful step in the right direction.

The only thing that worries me is that, given some of the points that have been made, and the admission by the hon. Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) that he was watching this debate outside this place, we will end up with a virtual Parliament. Some hon. Members may think that that is a good idea, as we can run businesses in this virtual economy. However, some of our constituents might think that we should spend more time in the Chamber dealing with the important things in life.

Sir Michael Marshall: The hon. Gentleman has identified a genuine problem. He must appreciate that, in certain situations, it is very easy to sign one's mail while listening to a debate. It becomes even more tempting to turn the volume down for some colleagues and to turn it up for others.

Mr. Miller: Indeed--and I have listened to some of the hon. Gentleman's speeches before.

I want to take a brief trip around the world. A couple of weeks ago, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) and the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), in his capacity as chairman of the British-American parliamentary group, and I were involved in a video link with Tom Foley, the former Speaker of Congress. Such links are steps in the right direction, and they are steps which the House should be taking.

A couple of weekends ago, while I was at home, I introduced a friend of mine to the Internet. At the time, I was logged on to a database in the university of Iowa, in respect of a project with which the Science and Technology Select Committee is involved. My friend did not really believe that I was actually logged into a place so far away. I asked him what he would like to see, and he asked for something about South Africa.

Within minutes, I was able to show him, in real time, information from the African National Congress about the resolution of an industrial dispute. That matter would never have made it into the British media. That is a incredibly powerful demonstration of the direction in

Column 940

which the technology will take us. It will provide information that people would otherwise not be able to access.

There have been exciting developments in my home area of the north-west of England. A project has been approved in collaboration with five other European regions, funded by the European Union, to link the regions on an experimental basis for a five-year pilot study. That kind of development will radically impact on distance learning, and in particular on language learning, and on the exchange of technical and cultural information.

The north-west has industrial strengths which we can exploit. Reference has already been made to GPT. A great deal of original ISDN--integrated services data network--technology was researched in GPT in Liverpool when it was the old Plessey company. We must exploit that technology to its fullest potential.

Other major manufacturers in the north-west, particularly companies which have historically been involved in defence communications equipment, can provide an enormously powerful base for the future of those technologies, particularly when we consider the need to develop cryptographic techniques on the Internet to deal with some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell).

I would not deny that the cable companies are performing a particularly useful job. I will refer to the asymmetry implications in a moment. However, the companies should look around them, and see what other companies are doing in terms of providing infrastructure support to households, industries, schools and colleges.

The cable companies could do very simple things. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who declared an interest, is not here now, because I am referring to the company he mentioned. If the cable companies simply required their contractors to operate under the rules of BS 5750, we would not hear complaints like those we have heard from Stockport and Salford about the activities of that operation.

Perhaps the Minister will address that point when he replies to the debate. Perhaps he will send a very strong message to the cable companies to the effect that the House expects contractors who are opening the doors to huge sums of money for their own benefit to restore our streets and grass verges properly when they undertake that work.

On 28 February, I presented a paper to an industrial conference organised by Brunel university. A Conservative party representative was invited, but one was not sent. Several important issues were discussed at that conference. I commend to the House the paper entitled "Internet Futures", which was written by Jeremy Barnes, Jon Chalmers and Ian Pearson of the BT laboratories in Martlesham. I am aware that the Minister has a high regard for the work of the scientists at Martlesham.

That paper contains an interesting sentence, which I believe encapsulates the issues that we are dealing with:

"It can be argued that the development of optical fibre is commoditising bandwidth and hence driving the Information Revolution just as the steam engine drove the Industrial Revolution." That simple sentence, despite the very convoluted word in the middle, typifies the power of the technology at our disposal.

Column 941

The House should congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central and the Trade and Industry Select Committee on their report. Their recommendations represent a powerful way forward. They have come up with a novel solution to the issue of asymmetry which will assist the cable companies and BT. It would be extremely helpful if the Government could say when they are going to adopt the recommendations.

The Select Committee report will provide us with a way towards universal access--a point raised by several hon. Members today. It will provide us with the basis for proper competition. It will also help our country to redevelop its industrial base.

In an early intervention, the Minister referred to radio wavelengths. When he replies, I hope that he will clarify what he means. I believe that he and I are--if I can use the awful pun--on the same wavelength in terms of the need to consider the technologies in their entirety. Radio, cable and twisted pair are necessary. Some of the technologies around twisted pair, like ISDN, will help solve some of the problems. However, radio will also be important.

In an earlier response, the Minister said that discussions were taking place about radio wavelengths. The cable companies tell us that they have a particular problem in this country about the area of the spectrum between zero to 4 GHz.

Mr. Ian Taylor: Everybody does.

Mr. Miller: Yes, and that is a problem, but it is one that other countries have tackled positively.

The Ministry of Defence largely dominates the distribution of that part of the spectrum. We must consider whether we need to keep that part in its hands, given the collaboration that is taking place across European frontiers and among NATO countries on other forms of communication inside the defence world. With some lateral thinking, it might be possible to release a part of that spectrum.

This debate can get very technical, but it is about one basic thing-- people. It is a debate about how we best provide a proper basis for information exchange for the people of this nation. Yes, it is about entertainment, as some hon. Members said, and that is an important part. Yes, it is about improving education provision within schools, colleges and our workplaces. It is also about a new definition of work, with all the implications that that has. It is an exciting technology, and we should not miss out on exploiting it to the full.

While there is bound to be the odd, overtly political exchange, the simple fact is that, if the House is serious about providing the best for our citizens, we must take on board all the potential of this technology, as well as recognising that, on occasions, there are some dangers with confidentiality, pornography and so forth. The technology is there for everyone, and it should be made available to every citizen in our nation.

6.3 pm

Mr. David Shaw (Dover): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) for allowing me some time. I hope that the House will understand that I was unable to attend the earlier part of the debate due to a meeting of the Select Committee on Social Security and the investigation that it is carrying on.

Column 942

I must declare a non-pecuniary interest, as I am involved in a charity in my constituency, which I was instrumental in setting up, designed to enable schools there to set up connections to the Internet and to develop electronic mail connections. To that effect, we have developed an exchange between schools in my constituency and in the district of Congressman Tim Petri in Wisconsin, in the United States of America. To date, more than 200 electronic mail letters have been exchanged between the schools. I hope that that will develop in an exciting way, although it will probably be slightly unpredictable. Pace Modems has supported that project and I probably ought to include it in the declaration of interest. It is a British company, and it has given at least one free modem to a school in my constituency.

Interestingly, the main point about the debate is that there is excitement on both sides of the House about the technology. It is enormously exciting. Clearly, as was said on the "Today" programme this morning--in a slightly different context, although it is none the less relevant to this debate--a new industrial revolution is taking place. The information technology revolution will transform the way in which we approach work, leisure, politics, government and virtually every other aspect of our lives. It is inconceivable that many of the things we do today will be done in the same way in 50 years, but it is also likely that they will not be done in the same way in as little as five or even 10 years. An enormous transformation in almost every human activity and the way in which we go about it will be provided by the information age.

In many areas, we do not have information at our finger tips, but the information age will literally put information there. It will be available at underground stations, in people's homes and places of work and in public buildings. There will be public access all over the country in all sorts of buildings, as well as in our schools and educational institutions.

It is not a technology solely for young people. Indeed, one of the constituents who sends me electronic mail is a pensioner. In one of his e- mail letters he said, "Mr. Shaw, I just wish this technology had existed in my day." As far as I know, he is still alive and he was certainly alive at the other end of the computer, but he is enjoying being on the Internet and sending e-mail to such an extent that he has signed up with not just one service provider but two. Clearly, that is the way in which many people of all ages will approach it--they will find it fascinating and it offers a tremendous opportunity to expand their knowledge and interest.

The Government's policy is right. We are deregulating where regulations exist and we are avoiding further regulation. That will encourage developments considerably. British software and hardware companies will come into the market, where they are not already there, although in many areas Britain is doing well and taking the lead. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston referred to a visit around the world, and I would go along with that. On my experiences on the Internet, I enjoy looking at the UK Government's World Wide Web server, which is constantly being developed. I am pleased to be able to say that my hon. Friend the Minister recently posted his speech and his Group of Seven conference attendance.

Column 943

I am also delighted that one can monitor other Governments on line. I find it interesting to look on line. I can pop into the Japanese Prime Minister's office from my constituency home and have a look at what he has been saying recently. I can pop into the House of Representatives about half a minute later and have a look at what is going on in the United States Parliament while at the same time keeping tabs on some aspects of Washington life in terms of what Government decisions are being taken there.

The ability to do all this for the price of a local telephone call--

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): Who is paying for all this?

Mr. Shaw: Clearly, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Private Secretary needs to understand a little more about how this operates. I pay for it--for the price of a local call on a Sunday. The service provider is in London, and one has access from there to anywhere. On a Sunday afternoon, one can dial up the headquarters of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States and download a photograph of a US satellite or a shuttle programme. I have looked at the Central Intelligence Agency, which has a home page on the World Wide Web. One can find out all about spy craft and how American spies operated. One can also go for a quick tour of newspapers from St. Petersburg in Russia, Der Spiegel , and Italian newspapers, to the Palo Alto newspaper in San Francisco.

Knowledge is available now on the Internet. The World Wide Web, which was developed with British money in Geneva--we should never forget that British Government support helped that--has helped our developments. I should also pay tribute to the Government for their support for Super-JANET--not you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the Super-JANET that has helped the United Kingdom's academic network to get under way.

There are many exciting developments in the United Kingdom and many opportunities for people all over the world to gain information, and for us to gain information that is relevant to our work in the House. What the Government are doing should be supported and encouraged. I hope that there will be further developments soon.

In conclusion, what is happening is enormously exciting and will transform our lives. I have been lobbied on political issues from New Zealand, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and the United States. I expect that we shall all become true citizens of the world, and not merely of the United Kingdom. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments about further developments.

6.8 pm

Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy): I have a confession to make. I am not on the Internet, and I have no intention of going on the Internet. None of my constituents appears to be on the Internet, because none of them seeks to send me any electronic mail. As the political speeches made in this place are so boring, the idea of reading speeches from other parts of the world frankly fills me with horror.

Column 944

First, I welcome the report and also the chance to debate it in the Chamber. I pay tribute to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Trade and Technology's personal enthusiasm for the information super-highway, in marked contrast with most of his senior colleagues in the Government. We need action, rather than warm words. I wish to refer briefly to the speeches of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), and my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam), for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), for Falkirk, West (Mr. Connarty), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) and for Stockton.

Ms Coffey: Stockport.

Dr. Moonie: My apologies to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey)--the "Stocks" are difficult to distinguish. All Members would agree that this has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's summing up. As regards the content of the report, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn)--whom I missed out of my list--that I agree with its general thrust, although I may well disagree with some points of detail.

My personal experiences of electronic communication are relatively limited. I had a box on a thing called Telecom Gold a few years ago, but unfortunately I lost the bit of paper on which my identifying number was pasted. I was never able to find it again, and eventually it fell into disuse. My only other direct connection with electronic information came when my annunciator went on fire two weeks ago. Clearly, I am an ill-fated player in the game of communications. I wish to read to the House two passages from a recent report by SRI International called "Digital Video in Advanced Multimedia". The first states:

"The information superhighway is a myth created by media hyperbole. It is too vague and ill-defined a concept on which to set investment plans and national policy. It suggests that a single all-encompassing network will provide users with broadband access when in reality the `highway' will consist of many networks with varying capabilities and services that link together".

The second states:

"The notion that the computer, television, video-game and telecommunications industries are likely to merge into one gigantic full- service entity has no support and much evidence to suggest that the industries will continue to remain separate".

That report was produced in the past couple of years at a cost of several million dollars, and it behoves us to take a close interest in it. It provides a down-to-earth view of where we are at present, and where we are likely to be going in the immediate future.

Mr. Whitney: Is the report based solely on American experience?

Dr. Moonie: The report costs about £900 and, I regret to say, I cannot yet afford to buy it. I have only seen the summary, although I am hoping to wangle it out of somebody in the near future. I may then be able to give the hon. Gentleman a more informed answer. The basic analysis of the report is correct in that we as policy-makers are inclined to develop too rosy a view of what future technology may bring. However, the development of the super-highway and the important industries which surround it should not be left to market

Column 945

forces alone. This is one area where the Government can do many things to foster industry. Politicians must also consider social issues such as access to the system, and social effects which any major changes in working and consumer patterns may bring. These matters are important, but they remain largely under-developed at present.

What is meant by the information super-highway? While SRI International is right in stating that it is a vague and ill-defined concept, it is possible to have a stab at it. For example, the Internet is not an information super -highway, as anyone who has used it will agree. While it is becoming popular commercially, the majority would perhaps see it as a network of country lanes. The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) referred to the cost of a telephone call on a Sunday afternoon, and that was apposite. That is an exact parallel with the Internet, along which one can amble while admiring the view every so often. The Internet is important because it demonstrates that there is a demand for the services on any super-highway that is ultimately developed.

The information super-highway is also not the delivery of 32 channel television services to all homes. Nor is it simply putting television and telephone services down the same pieces of wire or fibre. It may be a mixture of services, and include others for education, work, leisure, health, shopping or whatever people want. It is a system with relatively easy access to the great majority of individuals in society, and it mixes public service with private enterprise to allow us to gain the maximum economic and social returns.

In technological terms, it is the delivery of services on demand and interactively through a mixture of optical fibre, copper wire--twisted pair or coaxial--and digital radio transmission. The last of those is very important, and I trust that the Minister will spend some time on that during his speech. It is becoming an acute problem, as operators look to develop an end loop for users in remote areas. The Labour party has stated that we will review the asymmetry regulations with a view to allowing BT to enter the broadcast entertainment market, and we will do that at a specified time--assuming, as I confidently predict, that there will be a Labour Government shortly. That date has yet to be decided because of certain technical and financial complexities. Our action will unleash the ability of British Telecom to raise the necessary capital to install its new infrastructure.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the Select Committee's advice in that respect, but perhaps it has been too restrictive. Cable companies have been slow to achieve a cash return for their investment, and many are not yet in that position. It would be most unfair to expect companies to face competition at a time when they are carrying a heavy burden of servicing debt with no cash stream to support it. Any system must take that into account.

Mr. Caborn: If hon. Members read the report carefully, they will see that we also put a series of safety valves into the recommendation. There would be a right to appeal where difficulties such as revenue flow could be taken into account. There could be other problems as the franchise licence unfolds during the seven years. We were clear about giving a target date for the firms, and if they were making unreasonable demands they could face

Column 946

a penalty, which would be competition. I thought that the object of the exercise was to make sure that firms were opened up to competition; that is why we said that the over-franchising on a rolling programme is the answer.

Dr. Moonie: I accept that the emphasis is on removing the asymmetry, rather than on the safeguards. I am just restating for the record that we are conscious of the need for safeguards and that companies will be allowed to make a decent return on their investments before facing competition from a national network. We must not forget that the national provider has a considerable advantage over local companies.

Any future regulatory regime must preserve competition in long distance and local services, and must also ensure that there is a real choice for the consumer over as wide an area as possible without unnecessary duplication. The key to any effective long-term strategy for information super-highways is that we are talking about consumer choice and that we are empowering individuals. We are not empowering News International, NYNEX, the BBC, British Telecom or any other provider to tell people what they can watch in their own homes. They can put a box on their television or computer and they can choose, without restriction, from everything that is available to watch. There is wide agreement on both sides of the House that we must ensure that consumers and individuals are empowered, and not the providers of services.

Another important area for the Government to consider is the present state of anti-competition law in this country. There are grounds for saying that we should perhaps be considering strengthening the laws on competition, not to provide another stick to beat companies' backs but in the hope of being able to proceed with lighter regulations in the future. If the legal framework is stronger, the framework for regulation can in turn be lighter. That is the view of the Director General of Oftel and I support it. Cable companies pay for the use of long-distance and local networks of other operators, including BT, through interconnection agreements. If BT is allowed to compete for the delivery of entertainment services locally, why should it then be entitled to dig up our streets again? I live in a small, relatively quiet constituency in Scotland--Kirkcaldy--which has the good fortune to have been completely cabled.

I say to my hon. Friends who have complained about their experiences that mine has been relatively benign. The cable companies broke a few water mains every now and then, including one outside my door, and managed to dig up one of the telephone lines in my area, but I had remarkably few complaints and the exercise in now complete. I would receive an awful lot of complaints from my constituents if BT dug up all the streets again to lay another network in the local loop.

Just as we pay for interconnection agreements on the long-distance loop and have common carrier obligations, that may be necessary in areas where BT cannot readily install an alternative network. Where it can do so, I have no objection, although it may be a waste of money and cheaper to impose a common carrier obligation on the provider of the local loop. Once broadband services are available, however, it becomes immaterial, because the loop can carry any volume of traffic that one wishes to send down it. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wycombe pulls a face about that, but it seems to be the

Column 947

logical choice. Companies have a common carrier obligation, so I see no reason on grounds of competition why a common carrier obligation could not be employed in the local loop.

Mr. Whitney: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Moonie: I am sorry, but I do not have time to give way. If I pick up a telephone here in the House of Commons, the exchange decides whether to connect my call through BT, Mercury or the Government telecommunications network. It is invisible to me as a user. If, at home, I wish to view a television channel or buy from a home shopping service, why should I care whose infrastructure I use? However, I do not want two separate lines coming into my house, and I certainly do not want my streets dug up again. That general view has been expressed to me by constituents who have asked about that point.

We often talk about broadband services and the possibilities that they can open up, but those services must be demand-led rather than technology- pushed. Experience of users of new multi-media services shows that at present there is little demand. The Rochester, USA, trial reported in The Economist a couple of weeks ago is a good example of that. So there is no guarantee that the services being developed will be taken up until people really want to use them. People will not pay for them unless the demand is created. Cable companies have been relatively successful in acquiring subscribers, but they have certainly not developed an overwhelming desire among the population for their services. The search is still on for the killer applications--those that will make the difference--and who can say what they will be? I certainly cannot. Cable companies have also had the luxury of bidding for franchises in areas where they see the most market potential. That has by no means given us a broadband national network, nor will it when the next strand of licences is produced. At best, 80 per cent. of homes in the country will have access, and there is no guarantee that BT would go further than that.

I put that question directly to Sir Iain Vallance, who made the point clearly. BT will not cable up every home in the country, whether it is given immediate access to broadband services or not, so we must look at other ways of doing that. It will not be done entirely by fibre-optic cable. Radio is important for remote areas. Like it or not, we shall end up with a patchwork quilt of services that are interconnected. There is nothing wrong with that, provided that the right standards are employed to begin with.

That is another role for regulation in the market because cabling must be at the right level to promote competition but also ensure that the widest area is covered. We must ensure that there is proper inter-connectability of all parts of the service. The Government have a duty to set standards in that respect. I am still not certain whether that is currently the case. I think that it would bear close scrutiny from the Department for Trade and Industry to see what more should be done to strengthen it.

The Government also have a role as a procurer of services. The state still plays a major role in the provision of postal services, has its own telecommunications system

Column 948

and is the biggest single procurer of information technology systems in the country. If one wants to see what a broadband communications system looks like, one can look at Super-JANET. I shall not repeat the joke at the expense of Madam Deputy Speaker, to her great relief, I am sure. Scottish Telecom is busy developing a similar system to connect all the universities in central Scotland, as not every university has access to Super-JANET.

Other public agencies, such as the national health service, buy into broadband services for the transmission of medical records. As a major procurer, the Government have an opportunity to support those developments. A little foresight now could pay large dividends in future. We do not want to repeat the mistakes of the NHS. We must never forget that it wasted some £100 million in the past 10 years on information technology systems which did not work. We certainly do not want to go down that road again and it may be worth our while to pay a little more attention to the development of proper software services which can make use of the available capacity to carry them. Another role of Government is the promotion of common standards throughout the European Community. I expect that the Minister will refer to that in his wind-up speech, so I do not propose to dwell on it now. It is also important to recognise that the super-highways must not be dominated by one supplier of software, as has largely happened in the computer industry. We must insist on open standards and an open system so that any package can communicate with any other that is available. Although the information super-highway is not an economic panacea, it may be an economic necessity if we are to compete with the rest of the world. If we get the policy framework right soon, we can play a major part in its world-wide development. The last role of Government that I wish to mention is in promoting social and educational services. I welcome the commitment by the cable companies to cable all schools in their franchised areas. I hope that they will extend that public service offer to public offices, libraries and other elements of the public service infrastructure so that we can start to develop genuinely local information channels which will provide enormous benefit to their areas. Although local government faces tight restrictions on spending, I hope that Ministers will extend the funds available for items such as information technology to allow the development of services which will rapidly become essential. Will the Minister comment on that? Few people have spent much time considering the potential for social disintegration if information super-highways ultimately make major changes in our patterns of work and leisure. I do not like the idea of parents and children no longer interacting other than remotely. The implications of super-highway development for social cohesion must be studied now--not once it is already in place, when it will be too late.

The information super-highway may be ill-defined, so let us all start to develop a vision of what we want from it so that our demands, in turn, lead to the technological development we need. We may not get a single national network, so let us be clear about how we shall regulate for fair competition and equal access to networks. Let us ensure that those many networks can be properly linked through common standards. SRI doubted whether various industries would converge in the super-highway. In the long run, that may be in the best interests of everyone

Column 949

involved: consumers, hardware manufacturers, software developers, programme makers, and anyone else who travels along the super-highway, but particularly the consumer.

6.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor): This has been a remarkable debate. It has covereda vast area, and in the remaining time I shall find it almost impossible to do justice to the points that have been made. I therefore promise to e-mail everyone who has spoken on points that I do not cover, with the exception of the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), with whom I shall use more traditional measures--a glass of whisky and a chat, in person rather than on the video link.

Mr. Kirkwood: May we all have that?

Mr. Taylor: As a Minister, I make a special offer, but I make only one per speech.

The report of the Trade and Industry Select Committee is a remarkable document and I add my praise to the kind comments about the Committee's work and about its Chairman. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) has done an extremely good job in co-ordinating the work of the Committee. I am extremely grateful to him because, as I said when I appeared before the Committee recently, the report arrived on my desk at virtually the same time as I was appointed Minister for Trade and Technology.

I read it avidly as part of my learning process. The questions that arose as I read the report were ultimately included in the Command Paper, which was published last November. I hope that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central appreciates that it is a measure of the seriousness with which I viewed the report that the Department of Trade and Industry released a Command Paper rather than a simple reply. The hon. Gentleman enjoys detail. If he reads the Command Paper regularly--I know that he would not just glance at it once--he will notice the policy evolutions that it contains. I hope that he will grasp those evolutions because Governments do not often make such progress. He knows exactly to what I refer.

As many hon. Members have said, we face the problem of how to deliver benefits to everyone. It is very easy for me to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that everyone in the country must be on the information super- highway. That statement is a good soundbite that will capture the headlines, but what does it mean? For a start, it is misleading, because there is not, and cannot be, any such thing as a "super-highway". If the word is to be used at all, it should be used in the plural. I was delighted that several hon. Members noticed that fact.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and I agree that the super-highway is an interconnection of many different networks, the evolution of which will often be unpredictable and will stem from both the development of technology and surprising changes in demand patterns. It is not a criticism to say at this juncture that Britain does not have an optical fibre super- highway to every household in the country. Most people would not know what to do with a bit of optical fibre cable if it were stuck into their houses.

Next Section

  Home Page