Slow steps on Europe's hi-tech highway

Liberalisation issues overlooked as conference turns into a media event, finds Andrew Marshall

This weekend the European Commission is hosting a special G7 meeting in Brussels on information technology. It is not getting off to a promising start.

A great deal of money and time has been devoted to making this high prestige event successful. It is the first time the Commission has hosted a G7 conference, composed of the US, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Canada and Italy. But even officials in the Commission complain that the event is largely devoid of substance and they describe it as "just a media event". Many of those attending a meeting last Friday to set up the conference emerged disappointed and cynical about the whole exercise.

It is hard to know what a media event it will be given that the media are excluded from most of its aspects. There is a separate "media showcase" intended to demonstrate the marvels of new technology but this is not working well either. Belgacom, the Belgian telecommunications operator, has had problems providing the special lines needed to make the events work. The publicity material explaining what the showcase is has been delayed because of problems in the Commission. And the public relations firm hired to promote the event, Charles Barker in London, has enormous difficulty in explaining what the thing is all about.

Some of the companies exhibiting at the showcase are furious that they cannot get staff into the building to make exhibits work, or get the technology installed, or find out what the event is for. Some delegates have had huge trouble even getting their representatives accredited. Commission officials have said that details of accreditation cannot be finalised until the day before the meeting opens.

So the bureaucracy surrounding the event has been truly formidable but the substance is slim and the process is chaotic. Several different divisions of the Commission are involved in setting up the conference and some of them have enormous trouble in co-ordinating with others. And yet something will happen this week come what may.

The G7 meeting is probably not a bad metaphor for Europe's efforts to create a new infrastructure for information technology by breaking down existing national barriers and creating new regulations and systems. This is being done under the banner of the "information society" - the Commission's term for what the US calls the "information superhighway". It is unclear what the information society is and how it differs from the American idea, apart from the Commission's evident desire to make the whole thing sound a little bit more cuddly.

Theoretically this weekend will be used by the Americans and the Europeans to co-operate and co-ordinate over what vice president Al Gore calls the global information infrastructure. There is a declaration of core principles planned which includes:

q fair competition

q private investment and adaptable regulation

q open access to networks and universal provision of services

q equality of opportunity for citizens

q cultural and linguistic diversity, coupled with help for developing countries.

The US is way ahead of Europe in many aspects of information technology and the aims for the meeting look insubstantial. Building a "superhighway" in Europe is a vastly complicated affair because each EU state has its own regulations.

Commission efforts to liberalise have begun but considering that even basic legislation from the last decade has yet to be properly implemented it will clearly need a huge effort. The plan is to get all telecommunications services liberalised by 1998.

The process is being accelerated by the wave of mergers and corporate alliances which are already under way. Many of these involve link-ups between US and European telecommunications operators. The price of getting these arrangements agreed by the competition authorities in Washington and Brussels is likely to be faster liberalisation in Europe.

The European authorities say that without this, a strategic alliance between France Telecom and Deutsche Telecom may have anti-competitive implications. The US is also considering legislation that would open its market further to foreign investment in telecommunications but only on a reciprocal basis - again implying the need for further liberalisation in Europe.

The key battle ground is Germany. Martin Bangemann, the commissioner for information technology, said on Friday in Bonn that Germany should allow the use of alternative telephone networks ahead of the 1998 deadline. This would be a significant advance for liberalisation and is already being considered by the government. There are a range of players knocking on Germany's door to provide telecommunications services including Cable & Wireless and BT.

A key argument is that Deutsche Telecom and France Telecom are also involved in a strategic alliance with Sprint, the US telecomsoperator. AT&T and BT oppose this alliance because they argue that they cannot penetrate the French or German markets. But the Europeans also protest that there are restrictions in the US market.

Reciprocal market opening allied with liberalisation in Europe could help both sides. France is not entirely happy with this kind of bargain, fearing the implications for privatisation of France Telecom.

Britain, having already liberalised, wants Europe to press ahead faster. BT and MCI have already made a tie-up which has been cleared by the Commission.

The Commission itself is fully committed to liberalisation by 1998. Though there is dispute between different internal services over the route, there are signs that officials from the competition and industry sections are now co-operating more closely.

Officials say that US pressure this weekend on Europe to liberalise could be very useful -though they are keeping up their demands for access to the US market.

The role of the private sector and the telecoms operators as they face privatisation is helping to get the bandwagon rolling for liberalisation in Europe. So whatever the fine words and speeches this weekend, market pressures are increasingly forcing the US and Europe to co-operate on key issues.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Direct Marketing Manager - B2C, Financial Services - Slough

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity h...

Carlton Senior Appointments: Sr Wealth Manager - San Francisco - Inv AdvisoryFirm

$125 - $175 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: Senior Wealth Manager – In...

Carlton Senior Appointments: Private Banking Manager - Intl Bank - Los Angeles

$200 - $350 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: Managing Producer – Office...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum