UK set for pounds 20bn telecoms boost

Britain could receive a pounds 20bn trade boost during the next decade from the sweeping free trade pact in telecommunications announced at the World Trade Organisation at the weekend.

The UK, along with the US, is in a strong position to benefit from the possible doubling in size of the $600bn world telecommunications market. The new deal was announced, to applause in the WTO's Geneva headquarters, just a few hours before the midnight on Saturday deadline for negotiations to end.

Ian Taylor, Britain's science and technology minister, said: "The agreement in Geneva should usher in an explosive growth in turnover and investment world-wide." The UK telecoms industry already had a turnover twice the size of the car industry, he said.

Charlene Barshefsky, the US trade representative, was equally upbeat. "We expect the agreement will lead to the creation of approximately a million US jobs in the next 10 years," she said. The industries that would benefit ranged from communications companies themselves to equipment makers, electronic publishers and software providers.

Sir Leon Brittan, the EU's Trade Commissioner, said: "In addition to what this deal will do for the telecoms industry, it is a major step also in the creation of the information society."

The UN's International Telecommunications Union predicted that the telecoms industry's world revenues could almost double to $1,200bn by the year 2000. Neil McMillan, chairman of the WTO talks, predicted a $1,000bn increase in investment, and predicted the new deal would slash personal and business phone bills.

For all the euphoria about their potential benefits, the WTO talks came close to collapse at several stages. The original deadline for a telecoms trade deal was April 1996, but some countries - most importantly, the US - were concerned about opening their markets without good enough reciprocal access to overseas markets.

A breakthrough agreement in principle came in December at the WTO's annual meeting in Singapore. But even then there were doubts that enough countries would sign up to make it viable. A late US concession opened the way for the pact covering 95 per cent of the world's telecoms trade.

Mr Taylor said yesterday that Britain was well placed to take advantage of growing trade and investment in telecommunications. "We were the first in Europe, and one of the first in the world, to introduce competition in 1984. Our experience in the UK of vastly improved services and some pounds 4bn a year being invested in making the UK the most advanced network in the world, has shown what such a deal can offer to the whole world," he said.

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