Labour dash for highway revolution

February 10, 1995

The Labour Party has put its parliamentary weight behind the development of broad band networks in the United Kingdom.

Next week, the Policy Forum on Information Superhighways will hold a press conference to announce the members of the forum and its frame of refererence. It will also call for submissions from the public and other interested bodies.

The forum was set up late last year by Labour leader Tony Blair who appointed a panel of experts from education, industry and the communications field to advise on possible routes to the next information revolution.

Chris Smith, shadow national heritage secretary, is chairing the forum which has the widest brief but only a short time to gather the evidence and information.

Academics advising the forum are Sir John Daniel, vice chancellor of the Open University, and Steve Hepple of the Ultralab at Anglia Polytechnic University.

Education interests will also be represented by Anne Campbell, MP for Cambridge, and Bryan Davies, Labour spokesman on higher and further education.

The forum is split into four working groups: education and research, chaired by Ms Campbell and Mr Davies; infrastructure regulation; content regulation and provision; and social benefits.

Among the many questions to be answered are two relating directly to higher education - the future role of the wide band SuperJANET network and the development online of the University for Industry project.

The education group will look into the possibility of using a broadened SuperJANET as the backbone for the wide band network which will allow vast amounts of data to be sent swiftly between computer sites.

Little has been ruled out of the debate - even the question of whether BT should be allowed to develop commercial cable services in return for a dominant funding role in the superhighway.

Uprating the telecommunications system from copper wire to optic-fibre cable and extending it to all education establishments, hospitals and libraries is the Labour vision but it would require funding in billions.

BT is prevented from developing its cable services by the Department of Trade and Industry, a measure designed to allow the newly formed cable television firms time to develop their markets.

Mr Smith believes it is impossible for government to shoulder the costs of such a project and is looking towards an alliance of BT, Mercury and the cable companies to complete the task.

He views the development overseas of the broad band networks, particularly in France and the United States, as an example and a warning.

Failure to act soon on the financing of the superhighway would put the country almost terminally behind in the development of high-speed information exchange facilities, Labour believes, and this could have a knock on effect on the skills base and on other areas such as health services.

The forum will run along select committee lines, with witnesses called to give evidence and advice. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and the funding councils will appear.

The forum has until mid-April to collect the information with the final report due in mid-May for perusal by the Parliamentary Labour Party. It will then be presented to the Labour Party conference in October.

*The Government has also launched a consultation exercise backed by funding on the same area. Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, has called for the telecommunications industry, broadcasting companies and cable firms to develop ways of linking schools and colleges to the "information superhighway".

The consultation exercise will begin in the spring and the Department for Education will fund independent evaluations of broad band pilot projects in colleges and schools.

She said:"We must know more about how the superhighways can support teacher training, the delivery of the curriculum at all levels and how they will develop IT capabilities for working life."

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