Creating a social superhighway

Chris Smith sets out Labour's plans to give all British people access to the media revolution; Labour would give BT a clear timetable for entry into the entertainment market; Why don't we put into digital form the best of the great national collections of art?
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The Independent Online
We are living through an information revolution.The development of new means of communication is changing the way we work, learn and play. We can send and receive images, text and sound across thousands of miles of space and in real time.

The crucial question for government is how best to shape this revolution for the benefit of all, and that is the issue that Labour has sought to address in our policy statement launched today. Tony Blair said it was one of the most exciting ever policy launches by the Labour Party. I hope the public will agree.

As these changes begin to develop, we will enter a world in which international businessmen on four continents can work together on one document, a GP can instantly summon a second opinion from an expert hundreds of miles away, a schoolchild can tap into the resources of the Science Museum from a desk in the school library.

These enormously exciting opportunities won't happen, of course, unless we make sure that the new networks of fibre-optic cable and radio links cover all parts of the country. At present some two-thirds of the country has been franchised out to cable companies. It would be unforgivable if we ended up with only part of the country covered, and the rest - less lucrative, more difficult areas - left out in the cold. Thus we believe a clear date should be set for entry into the competition by British Telecom and other telephony providers.

Of course, cable companies and their shareholders should be able to make a return on their investment. But they must make their money from effective competition, not regulatory protection.

Government's job is not to pick winners but to create the competitive framework in which winners can win. To that end Labour would:

- give BT and others a clear timetable for entry into the broadcast entertainment market starting in 1998 and proceeding franchise-by-franchise until 2002;

- bring into force competition law, at least up to the standard of the European legislation, to protect entrants and incumbents alike from anti- competitive behaviour;

- streamline the outdated regulatory structure into an Ofcom for carriage and a revamped ITC for content.

These measures will bring the full benefits of competition and innovation to the consumer. Taken together they would foster real competition on the superhighway, giving the cable companies the same protection Mercury received in the 1980s but making sure all companies could compete in these vital new markets.

In return for a programme of entry for BT and others into the market, we would expect from them a programme setting out how they intended to reach all areas of the country and on what timescale.

I envisage that what we will achieve in the end is a mosaic of provision,with some areas serviced by BT alone, while in others there will be competition between BT, a cable company and perhaps other telephony providers, too. Who provides which bits of infrastructure is, in fact, relatively unimportant provided two crucial criteria are met: that it reaches everywhere and that each part can talk to each other part, no matter whose infrastructure is used.

We would have a further expectation of BT and the other companies. Ascables are laid and radio links developed, we would insist that a feed is put into every school, every public library, every health centre, every hospital and every Citizen's Advice Bureau. The new networks must not simply be a means for greater business-to-business efficiency or for the delivery of better home entertainment. Assisting learning in school or college, helping with the delivery of medical care, ensuring that elderly or disabled people are in closer touch, or making public information more readily available are all crucial social aspects of the new information age.

There is another fundamental reason why we should aim for the cabling- up of schools and libraries. The ability to have access to information and to use it will gradually become the new defining attributes of power in our society. I don't want to see us developing into a society of the information-rich and information-poor. And while we will find it difficult to enable everyone to afford to link themselves into the networks in their own homes, they must surely be able to go into their local library or community centre or school and use the links there.

There are important economic advantages, too. Through the development of our own British network, we can help to establish an early-mover position in the global race. We lead the world in computer graphics and animation. We have some of the best software writers anywhere.We have strong and world-respected media companies. Let's make sure we play to these strengths and develop our own market for content so that we can then turn to the international opportunities.

Nowhere will these opportunities be greater than in the publication of educational material. We have the supreme advantage of the English language. Four-fifths of all the information stored on networks around the globe is in English. We have organisations like the BBC, the British Council and the Open University which inspire enormous loyalty and affection everywhere.The development of interactive global networks gives us a real chance to build on these strengths.

We propose one particular project both for use here in Britain and internationally. Why don't we use some of the millennium fund to put into digital on-screen form the best of all the great national collections of art and history we possess? Let us set about creating a Millennium Archive, putting into CD-rom form the contents of the British Library, the Science Museum, the Tate Gallery and all the other storehouses of knowledge and culture we have. And then let us make it available free to every school and public library in the country - so that anyone, anywhere in Britain can share our rich heritage. That would be a far better way to celebrate the millennium than the purchase of papers the nation thought we owned anyway.

The opportunities that open up with the development of these new communications networks are breathtaking. But they will only come if we as a nation, and the Government as the stewards of the nation, take a serious decision to shape the information revolution for the benefit of all. Sitting back and letting the market develop will ultimately prove highly unsatisfactory. If we want everyone to share in the new information age, government must get to work to put the right framework in place. A Labour government will want to do precisely that.

The writer is Shadow Heritage Secretary.