Cable will put schools on-line 'before digital'

Plans by cable operators to wire up every school in Britain are already well advanced, an industry spokesman said yesterday, while a plan by Rupert Murdoch to supply digital satellite dishes for use by institutions could take years to develop.

"We are actively deploying our links to schools and universities," Bob Frost, chief executive of the Cable Communications Association, said yesterday. "The structure is already there, while the alternatives such as digital satellite would require additional hardware and software."

Mr Frost, whose association represents Britain's cable operators, made his remarks in the wake of reports that Mr Murdoch had offered satellites for every school, in return for the Government's support over his planned introduction of digital satellite services in the UK.

"There's no question that we will have a functioning system connecting schools first," Mr Frost added. The cable industry is halfway through a pounds 10bn-investment programme to roll out broadband cable services across the country.

The Government has been looking at ways of encouraging the growth of the information highway in the UK, and has been concentrating on connections to schools. The Labour Party unveiled a controversial agreement with BT last year under which the telephone operator would connect schools and other public institutions with fibre optic lines, in return for the freedom to broadcast entertainment services over its network.

The information highway, including connections to the Internet, so-called "distance learning", and other interactive services, is a high priority at Number 10, where Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine has been taking a lead.

Mr Heseltine met Mr Murdoch over lunch six weeks ago, to discuss how Mr Murdoch's News Corporation might help develop a function "educational information highway" in the UK. Two weeks later, the Government introduced an amendment liberalising ownership restrictions on investments in domestic satellite services.

Cable and telephone lines now being installed in the UK are capable of supporting two-way communication of video, text and audio signals. Digital satellite, whereby signals are digitised and compressed, is also capable of interactivity, but there are presently no such services available in the UK.

According to satellite experts, a digital service would require new hardware in space, as well as extensive hardware and software on the ground.

Mr Murdoch's offer is believed to have been limited to the supply of satellite dishes, leaving institutions and the Government to provide the additional hardware and software required.

Mr Murdoch's BSkyB is the dominant pay-TV player in the UK. The company has said it would introduce new digital services within the next two years.

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