Labour plans to net IT riches in academe

July 14, 1995

A Labour government would rely on academic expertise in networking and multimedia, teamed with private sector and European Union finance, to build a national broad-band information network by 2005.

Labour leader Tony Blair will unveil the party's information infrastructure plans, based on the work of a commission chaired by the shadow heritage secretary Chris Smith at a London conference on Tuesday.

The commission's report, to be released on Tuesday, makes a number of recommendations which link commerce and the academic sectors more closely.

It maintains that broad-band networks can be installed across the nation, though not to every home, by 2005.

The report proposes that the Business Information Centres, funded by the Department of Trade and Industry, should be linked to the academic networks Janet and SuperJanet.

Higher and further education institutions would act as centres of excellence in multimedia and other information technologies.

Mr Smith said: "We envisage a cross-fertilisation of ideas between business and academe. The universities are way ahead of commerce and the public services in their expertise in this field. Both sides can learn from this development."

But SuperJanet is not being proposed by the commission as the sole provider of broad-band networking. Nor is Labour insisting that the entire infrastructure should be based on the Internet.

"The Internet is a wonderful tool and will be part of the future but other systems and other networks will be developed. The Labour government will not be dictating which networks need to be built. It will facilitate the creation of these," Mr Smith said.

The report recommends that a Labour government should make network constructors provide a fibre optic line into "every school, public library, health centre and hospital".

In higher and further education, the expertise gained already could be applied to develop a world-standard array of multimedia packages to be accessed on the new networks. Mr Smith said he was particularly impressed by packages developed in the Learning Methods Unit at Liverpool John Moores University.

"This type of expertise will be crucial in the development of the new networks," he said.

Labour believes that tight budget constraints will effectively prevent large-scale spending in this field by the Department for Education, although some new funding will be made available.

But Mr Smith believes, from discussions with European Union information technology specialists, that structural funding could complement EU social funding in projects of unique value such as the construction of a learning and training network in the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

A key to the financing and construction of the new networks, the commission believes, is the presence of British Telecom. The report suggests a gradual relaxation of the "broadcast ban" which bars BT from delivering television services to homes.

At present, the company is prevented from competing with cable television companies in this area and is reluctant to apply its technical expertise to constructing broadband networks.

Mr Smith said that he hoped BT would commit itself to a fibre-optic future rather than build on its medium-band technology, which works over existing copper telephone wires.

The report underlines the importance of Labour's proposed University of Industry, which would deliver education and training to workplaces, but cautions that broad-band links are essential for its development.

Labour's routemap for the Infobahn

*National broadband network in place by 2005

*Fibre optic connection to every school, public library, health centre and hospital

*Pluralist approach, with roles for Internet and SuperJanet

*Funding sought from private sector and European Union

*BT broadcast ban to be phased out in stages *Business Information Centres to be linked to academic networks

*University of Industry to go online

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