Labour pledges public access to 'superhighway'

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Indy Politics

Technology Correspondent

The Labour Party has attacked the Government for failing to promote the benefits of the information society and pledged to make the private sector link every school, hospital, public library and health centre to the "information superhighway".

"The real question is not whether the information revolution is taking place, but how," Chris Smith, Labour's spokes-man on national heritage, said at the launch of the party's new policy document, Communicating Britain's Future, yesterday.

Labour says it will encourage the development of the information society by promoting competition between British Telecom and the cable companies, which presently have regional franchises to provide television and telephone services. Starting in 1998, BT would be allowed to compete head- on in offering broadcast entertainment in franchises across the country, which it is currently banned from doing until at least 2001. BT and the cable companies would be encouraged to offer broadband services, which can send the equivalent of dozens of television channels along a single fibre-optic wire.

But BT would also be obliged to offer such services in sparsely-populated areas that the cable companies have shunned. The document also proposes a "Millennium Archive", of digitised versions of national art treasures from museums and galleries, which would be available free to every school and public library.

Labour would reorganise Oftel, the telecommunications industry regulator, and the Independent Television Commission, which oversees commercial television, by creating an "Ofcom" to oversee all communications networks.

BT said it broadly welcomed the proposals, which would "eliminate uncertainty".

But the Cable Communications Association, representing cable companies, said the proposals were flawed. "They seem to have an all-pervasive interest in BT. But there are hurdles that they haven't even considered yet," Richard Woollam, director-general of the association, said.

Mr Smith attacked the Government, which he said "has stymied the development of the information superhighway" by failing to promote an understanding of its advantages.

As a first step, the Labour Party suggests libraries should offer cheap E-mail services, so that anyone can rent an E-mail "address" with which to access the Internet, and that schools should also be able to connect for "affordable" charges.