The chairman of the committee supervising the country's only existing information superhighway, the broadband academic network SuperJANET, has indicated that SuperJANET should not be seen as a ready-made backbone for a national broadband network.
Alistair Chalmers, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Networking and professor of computing at the University of Sussex, indicated that although talks are in progress to extend JANET to further education colleges, neither schools nor public libraries can count on a similar welcome.
This comes after Tony Blair's Labour conference visions of the information society were brought down to earth with a bump by BT, which denied that it had any deal with the Labour party to connect schools, hospitals and libraries to Labour's proposed superhighway.
Iain Vallance, chairman and chief executive of BT, met with Tony Blair last Thursday and said afterwards: "We have simply confirmed our agreement. There is no 'deal' as such between BT and the Labour Party but there is an understanding that if they get into power they will adopt the recommendations of the all-party select committee on Trade and Industry on allowing BT and Mercury to compete with the cable and TV monopolies.
"BT would respond by some acceleration of our broad-band investment programme and by offering in principle, free connection to schools, colleges and hospitals as this was rolled out.
"This is just the same response as we would give to the Government were it to allow us to compete."
At the moment BT and other telecomms firms will not be allowed into the potentially lucrative services market provided by optic fibre until 2002 at the earliest.
Under present policies, schools can connect to JANET by arrangement with an individual higher education institution. UKERNA, the body which operates the research networks, was set up as a limited company on April 1 1994 and could in principle open up the networks to commercial and other uses. However, this would require changes to the present usage policies and probably to the entire management structure which puts the networks, through JISC, under the ultimate control of the higher education funding councils.
Visions of a seamless network connecting schools, hospitals and libraries are unlikely to be realised. A more likely outcome is that each service would have its own network and that these networks would be interconnected through the Internet. The Internet is a network of networks, each of which may provide certain services for its members, such as information databases or high-bandwidth multimedia communications, without necessarily making them publicly available. JANET and SuperJANET are examples of this.
Professor Chalmers warned that admitting public libraries to JANET could lead to a clash of usage policies. Libraries are funded by local authorities and part of their remit is to help the local economy by providing information to businesses. "Any Internet connection they provided would have to be open to commercial use, to help businesses get the information they need," he said. "We cannot do that on JANET."