Writing for Computer Weekly magazine this week, Shadow Minister for
Industry and Technology, Michael Fabricant, set out in a few hundred
words his vision for information communication technology in the coming
years. He wrote:-
Earlier this year, I attended a broadband conference where David
Isenberg, one of the American founders of the internet, said of the
Telco’s: "Just give us a broad pipe then get the hell out of the way!".
After all, it wasn’t so long ago that telephones were hard wired into
the wall and you got what you were given by BT.
The Conservative view of computing and the internet age is not too
dissimilar. Legislate if it is an aid to the industry and to growth,
otherwise just let the industry experts get on with it.
Of course, there has to be some legislation. Intellectual property
rights need to be protected, infrastructure needs to be secure, a safe
system for cash transfers need to be encouraged, and the tax system must
be transparent and user-friendly. Monopolies must not be allowed to
strangle development. Local loop unbundling has become more viable
recently, but France and Germany still have more open systems. And like
the present Government, we believe cyber-squatting has to be controlled
– though the Labour Party recently registered four websites in the name
of Michael Howard!
There must also be a greater understanding by Government of the
fragility of the network. The US has established an agency specifically
to counter cyber-terrorism. The UK has no such agency and remains
vulnerable. And it’s not just terrorists and hackers. A major fire in
a tunnel carrying fibre-optic cabling could severely disable telecoms in
the UK. It’s not just the West Coast Main Line train service which
links the north-west to the capital.
Like the Model T Ford, the internet is still barely up and running.
Despite the best efforts of spam filtering companies, spam is now
estimated to account for 80% of all email traffic and this will get
worse as the internet develops. Governments have a role to play in
constructing cross-national agreements to ensure that the internet does
not become constipated with the sludge of unwanted spam.
But what is the future of the internet? I believe the long-term future
for the delivery of television will be via video streaming over what we
now call the internet. And I am not referring to the herky-jerky
pictures most people experience on their lap-tops. Digital television
compression enables broadcast quality television streaming so that, in
time, consumers will be able to watch ABC Sydney or WGBH Boston as
easily as BBC2 at present. But this requires the delivery of true
broadband: streaming rates of at least 2Mbps and probably 4. Companies
like Video Networks in London are already providing a service of
broadband TV on demand, but this is just a beginning. The present
Government boasts and spins about the take-up of broadband in the UK,
but who but a Government Minister would claim that ‘broadband’ is
128kbps? It may download photos faster than a 38kbps dial-up
connection, but – like the Model T Ford – it won’t win any Grand
Prix nor will it deliver broadcast quality TV. There is a very real
fear that just as we suffered by being the first nation in the world
with a public TV service with a 405 line system, our present internet
structure just won’t meet the needs of the future.
So how can Government help? There needs to be a new regime to encourage
the lighting up of Britain’s dark fibres. R&D Tax Credits need to be
simplified and not subject to different interpretation by different tax
inspectors. The private sector needs to be encouraged and not be
leached to support administrators of the public sector. But most of
all, a Conservative Government would understand the needs of the ITC
industry: to allow it to deliver services and make profits. And it
would take the advice of David Isenberg: to let the industry experts
get on with it and know when the hell to get out of the way!