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On the top-level, hi-tech chat line

Don't expect much from the first global summit on the information highway, warns Denis Gilhooly Four billion people in the world are without a telephone
Government and industry heavyweights today converge on Brussels for the first summit on the information society to have been held by the G7 club of the world's richest nations. Few doubt the need to debate the economic and social role of modern communications and ensure a seamless global information infrastructure. But the sudden emergence of "information highways" as an issue of universal public policy is both welcome and worrying.

In recent years, unprecedented technological advances have brought dynamic growth in the world's telecommunications markets. At the same time, strain on public sector budgets has led to new government policies and regulations aimed at privatising and liberalising state-owned telecommunications monopolies in both developed and developing countries.

The race to stay in front on the information highway has become intensely competitive as the proliferation of national and transcontinental high- speed networks has woven a web around the globe, hurrying the convergence of telephone, television and computer into one giant multimedia industry. As new electronic media become more global in scope, confounding national borders and the reach of national legislation, natural-monopoly and cross- ownership rules that once separated publishing, telecommunications and broadcasting have come under pressure for amendment at both national and international level.

The G7 summit is the first attempt by the industrialised countries to address these issues at intergovernmental level. Expectations are high. But beyond the showcase of multimedia pilot projects in Brussels, an underlying scepticism exists that any tangible results will come from this diverse gathering of political and industrial leaders.

More concerned with representing their own vested interests than the interests of the public at large, the suspicion is that many of the G7 participants have seized upon the hype surrounding the information highway as an excuse to muddy the intellectual debate for their own commercial advantage, or simply to revive their flagging industrial or political fortunes.

Those with vested interests include for example companies of the calibre of BT, AT&T and Microsoft, which say they and they alone are capable of building the infrastructure, supplying the hardware, producing the software that will deliver the electronic future. Companies such as Olivetti, Bull and SGS Thomson secretly crave a return to the good old days of unadulterated industrial policy.

Then there are monopoly telecommunications operators with vast workforces, assets and revenue bases to defend, whose economic justification is under increasing threat. And governments that remain more preoccupied with shoring up monopoly power and high profits in the private sector than with stimulating investment and media convergence through market based incentives.

The fact is that management of the global information economy is entering a period of chaotic transition for which no industrialist, politician or citizen is remotely equipped. The spread of computers and the digitisation of electronic networks have unleashed turbulent forces that have thoroughly undermined traditional organisational strategies, market structures and regulatory mechanisms.

So just how can the conditions be created for sustainable growth and job creation in a time of unparalleled technological innovation? The truth is, nobody knows. As industry giants compete for control of the information highway, few know what business they will be in 10 years from now.

But in the multimedia era, the problem is not simply that the old divisions between conventional media have become unstable. Progress on the global information highway will increasingly be hampered by the fact that some countries are moving far more swiftly than others towards building national information infrastructures.

Already five to ten years ahead of Europe, the US has seized upon the information highway as the embodiment of its economic vision for the 21st century: a vision of long-term investment, breakthrough technologies and vibrant market competition. At the same time, American domination of the world's software and hardware electronic markets can only be enhanced by growth in new global systems such as the Internet and the new low earth orbit satellite systems - two topics conspicuous by their absence from the G7 agenda.

Meanwhile, in Europe, failure to address fragmentation of the information industry into disparate national telecommunications markets, coupled with inconsistent political will in opening up those markets to competition, and perennial problems of competitiveness in high technology industries, will increasingly threaten construction of the global information highway.

But the significant missing link, and the one for which no concrete proposals are even tabled at the G7 summit, is how to extend the proposals for information highways in the industrialised countries to the developing world. Technology can be as much an instrument of exclusion as of integration. Despite the publicity gibven to the radical changes in communications and their attendant buzzwords - privatisation, liberalisation, global alliances, convergence, fibreoptics, mobile, cellular, etc etc - the hard fact remains that four billion people in the world are without a simple telephone; and almost 50 million are on official waiting lists for a simple phone line, and the average wait is 1.5 years. Their situation shows little sign of improvement.

Against this background, the agenda that will form the basis for the conclusions of the G7 meeting is predictable, but no less disappointing for that. The issues of pressing importance in the multimedia world - pricing, intellectual property rights, data privacy and protection, global standards, training, economic development - are, like that of the exclusion of the developing countries, inadequately addressed.

Ultimately, if the G7 is serious about taking the lead on the information highway, leadership must first be demonstrated at home. In this respect, 1995 is the critical year for action. In the US, a second attempt will be made to pass legislation overhauling the 1934 Communications Act and opening the market to full service competition. In Japan, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications will begin its review in April on the future competitive structure and the break-up of NTT, the largest single private telecommunications company in the world. In Europe, the European Commission will attempt to translate its Green Paper on telecommunications infrastructure competition into binding directives.

Despite the rhetoric of the G7 summit, the fact is that monopoly structures, tariff imbalances, cross subsidies, and high access charges - all based on old national soveriegnty concepts restricting the delivery of the information highway across frontiers - today persist in every member nation of the G7 and all work against the delivery of new technologies to the customer.

It looks very much as though the opportunity for the information-rich G7 to seize the political initiative on the global information highway is not about not be taken.

The writer is publishing director of `CommunicationsWeek International'.