Warning for UK over information superhighway

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN has only a few years to get 'wired' and interacting on the information superhighways that promise to link the world, or face social and economic decline, key players in communications said yesterday.

At a conference in London on the opportunities of 'multimedia' communications, speakers from politics, business and public bodies reinforced the importance of electronic communication.

The aim of superhighway proponents is to exploit existing, but chaotic, computer networks to create an ordered, worldwide web that could deliver data, television and other services over optical fibre links.

These networks should enable visual and virtual reality images, speech, sound and graphics to be sent instantaneously across the globe.

This could bring new services such as video-on-demand, home shopping and banking, remote university teaching or remote expert guidance in surgery or industrial projects. Thus, electronic highways would bring a new dimension to commerce, industry, education, medicine, shopping, leisure and travel.

Dr Peter Johnston, of the European Commission, said there was an urgent need to understand the change in society that on-line access to information would bring. 'We mustn't underestimate the social implications of this plan.

Countries that drag their feet could in less than a decade face disastrous decline,' he said.

There was no representative from government at the conference, but Robin Cook, in his last public appearance as Labour's trade and industry spokesman, said that Britain stood at the start of a third industrial revolution. 'We ought to be seized as a nation by the importance of getting at the front of this revolution because whoever does will have immense export markets for the foreseeable future.'

In July, the House of Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee criticised the lack of urgency in the UK over the development of networks to form an information superhighway, and said policy-makers lacked vision about their potential compared with US counterparts. A response from government is imminent.

Yesterday's meeting was the initiative of the National Communications Union, which is anxious that the UK does not lag behind America and Japan.

Neil Stewart, one of the conference organisers, said: 'Britain is at a crossroads . . . It is now a question of whether the UK information superhighway grows slowly under individual initiatives by the cable companies, in which case Britain will have a completed network by 2010, or whether we take the line being advanced by (US) Vice-President Al Gore and try to get the infrastructure in place by the year 2000.'

Ignorance over technology is rife. A recent survey of 200 UK companies found that two- thirds of managing directors did not understand the term 'information superhighway'.