A tussle is looming over the future of the academic and research networks JANET and SuperJANET.
As hopes of a consumer-driven "information superhighway" fade, eyes are turning to education and training as the applications which could drive investment in a national information infrastructure for the United Kingdom. SuperJANET could form the backbone of that infrastructure.
This means that the "equity issue" - ensuring that no social, economic or geographic group is excluded - is rising to the top of the agenda. While it may be tolerable for parts of the country to be without home shopping or movies on demand, the idea that whole populations should be denied the benefits of educational technology is not so politically acceptable. With local "education superhighway" experiments proliferating across the country, and private-sector voices such as the Confederation of British Industry entering the debate, the events of the next six months are likely to decide the shape of the multimedia future not only of the education system but of the country.
The CBI, representing manufacturing industry, has established an initiative called Smart Isles to promote the development of "information superhighway applications that support economic growth and enhance quality of life in the UK". Smart Isles intends to support projects in a number of fields including distance learning.
In the United States on April 30, the National Science Foundation handed over NSFnet, the backbone of the Internet, to commercial operators. Privatisation is a possible future for the UK's academic and research networks JANET and SuperJANET. In an issues paper last month, the higher education funding councils' Joint Information Systems Committee, which sets policy on the networks, said there were good reasons for wishing to see schools, companies and other external organisations connecting to the academic networks.
"There is absolutely no reason why a commercial company like BT could not provide most of the infrastructure," said Derek Law of Kings College London, a member of JISC. "Anybody could provide the wiring. But its management, acceptable use policies, freedom of information, ready access to information - that I would like to see in more neutral, non-commercial hands."
Providing two-way, interactive multimedia services to rural schools would pose an unprecedented challenge. SuperJANET predominantly serves the urban centres where most higher education institutions are located.
The idea that the private sector will not invest in rural areas is questioned by Karl Chapman, chief executive of the CRT Group, a training and technology company which has begun wiring up schools on Merseyside. Now, with partners including the University of Northumbria and the local Training and Enterprise Council, CRT Group has launched a similar plan in north-east England, the Northumberland Information Utility. "What we announced in Northumberland covered rural and urban areas," Mr Chapman said.