It's hard to hack it when the Europlugs don't fit

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The Independent Online
We live in an information age. Knowledge is power. We have to put our foot on the gas, engage gear and cruise on to the information super-highway. Tune in, log on, hook up.

But the sad reality of the noble information dream in Europe is that for all the big talk and thick books, things fall apart - if they work in the first place. The single internal market is a fine thing, but it has not yet got as far as harmonising telephone plugs and sockets, switchboards, dial tones and all the rest of the mundane things that are the tarmac and service stations of the fabled infobahn.

This is a particular gripe for the European press. We travel between press centres in different cities. Once there, you are confronted by huge problems of telecommunications. Not massive issues like universal service or access deficit charges, the complex themes of analysis by clever people in the European Commission, but the simplest matters: the plugs don't fit.

Nearly every international meeting ends with four or five people standing around a small grey box muttering: "Perhaps it's the software." It never is. It is nearly always the plugs. There are 15 countries in the European Union and there are probably about 20 plugs - and none of them fits each other. Most computers have lots of cables and gadgets tacked on to them in any case to enable words of wisdom to hurtle down the line. My office Toshiba needs a black cable with a little cigarette-box sized thing stuck in the middle of it.As it has a BT plug on the end of it, I need a little grey thing to convert it to a US-standard plug, which in turn plugs into a Belgian, or French plug or whatever.

The European Parliament in Strasbourg has a completely different plug from anywhere else in Europe and different from the rest of France. To get this to work, I need a little brown thing and then another little black thing. I even had to to buy an extra mains cable because of the way they put the plug sockets in. Then it works, sometimes.

Even once you have got all the little coloured things plugged into each other, that is probably the start of your problems. You need a special card for each different place, or sometimes a special code. The dialling tone is different in several countries including Germany, because, well, it probably has something to do with Bismarck, or the war, or the Wirtschaftswunder. My computer gets sniffy and refuses to recognise this, and it won't do anything. So I have to fiddle with the software for a while. Then it works -- sometimes.

The EU is very fond of talking about its plan for an information society. This is very different from the plain old boring American information superhighway. It is much cleverer and more sophisticated. They are having a huge conference of the Group of Seven industrialised nations this month, on every conceivable aspect. Nothing much about plugs, though.

Nobody seems very interested in plugs. I called the European Telecommunications Standard Institute, in France. ETSI has 11 technical committees, 60 technical sub-committees and 140 working groups. It took them quite a while to get the right extension and then their press officer didn't know if they dealt with plugs. "It seems like such a simple question," said Christopher J Corbett, their press officer.

It is not. He called back to say that ETSI was asked by the European Commission to carry out a feasibility study on whether or not there should be a harmonisation of Network Termination Points for Public Switched Telephone Networks (plugs). Technical sub-committee TE5, which looks after General Terminal Access Requirements, has been having a really good think about this ("Yes!" "No!'') and should be ready to decide by next month March, whether or not it is a smart idea.

If they decide it is, they wouldn't do the job themselves, but would pass it to the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardisation in Brussels. Then there can be a really dull argument about the Great British Network Termination Point and its place in British tradition, I expect.

There are advantages in all of this. I have met lots of really nice people from national telecoms companies over the years. The Danes even lent me a computer. And there is money in this. France Telecom makes 50 francs out of everybody who goes to the European Parliament, because they all have to buy the Special French Black Thing.

There is also a wonderful firm called Teleadapt, based in Britain, which will send the world's largest range of little grey, black, brown and white things to you. If you ring them, they will talk in a soothing voice and everything will probably be OK. Sometimes.

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