The good, the bad and the angry

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Britain abounds with innovative local information technology schemes, but there is still no sign of an integrated, properly resourced national strategy. Jack Kenny asks who's to blame and (below) discovers that the United States does it better

The attempt to get the information superhighway up and running in Britain is going to be a good story and, like all good stories, it requires heroes and villains. But so far, it is difficult to tell which is which.

Who are the villains? The Government, which can be accused of doing little? The Government's watchdog Oftel, which oversees the telecommunications industry? BT with its power and massive profits? Or the cable companies with their wealthy American backers?

The Government argues that it has deregulated the telecoms industry and, as a result, all it has to do is stand back and let the laws of economics take their course. The problem is that it has created a very strange marketplace full of rules and regulations and with one of the leading players - BT - forbidden to compete with the cable companies until the year 2002.

Oftel has the task of regulating one of the most dynamic and complex areas of growth in any modern economy, and it is now making a serious bid for the role of hero. Don Cruikshank, Oftel's director general of telecommunications, app-eared to be stung into life last autumn when Labour leader Tony Blair announced his agreement with BT to allow it to compete in return for connecting educational and medical establishments and libraries to the superhighway.

Cruikshank immediately put out critical press releases, looking as if he was about to enter the political debate. In December, however, he issued a complex document about the level of service, which seemed to calm the atmosphere. Cruikshank now appears to be representing the interests of schools by helping them into the on-line world.

He has organised consultations and opportunities to share views. Oftel proposes that schools in the UK should be entitled to a high level of basic services: reasonably affordable access to a wideband or broadband network; affordable and predictable charges; and dedicated high-speed network links.

To meet the shortfall between what schools can afford to pay for networking and what the service costs, Oftel proposes setting up a Universal Service Fund. Money for the fund would come from the telecom companies. The fund would be between Pounds 50 million and Pounds 100 million, against the industry's turnover of Pounds 16 billion. In other words, an operator like BT would have to pay between 0.5 per cent and 0.8 per cent of its revenue.

BT did not welcome the Oftel proposals, largely because it still resents its exclusion from competing with the cable companies on an equal footing, even though it owns most of the UK's communications infrastructure as a result of privatisation. And BT needs to accept that it is the reason most schools are terrified by exorbitant telephone bills and why we do not really have an on-line culture.

Yet in February 1995, the cable companies made a virtually unnoticed commitment to education: they were prepared to connect, free of charge, any school they passed while laying cables. They are not keen to be held to any agreement by Oftel because they are building their networks, but they do recognise that they have a social duty, and some companies - like Cabletel, Telewest and Telecential - are involved in schemes to benefit the educational communities in their areas.

Oftel recently organised a consultation meeting to listen to views about its proposals. The cliche at any gathering of people to do with education and information technology these days is: "Of course, we are now probably world leaders in the use of IT in education." Are we? One fact: 40 per cent of computers in our schools are more than five years old - in other words, obsolete.

Don Cruikshank seems to have recognised that schools in this country will not benefit from the Internet and other on-line services, unless prices are reduced and bills made more predictable. Oftel also accepts that this is just the start, and massive training is needed to achieve what Jeff Morgan of the National Council for Educational Technology calls "network literacy " across the country. The Internet and the information superhighway are not solutions but problems that have to be solved.

It was frequently asserted at the consultation that the future prosperity of this country depends on the populace feeling at ease with and able to use the information superhighway. If it is that important, it was argued, it is irresponsible to expect schools with their present level of resourcing and funding to take on the burden of educating children to live and work in that world.

Roger Brodie of Acorn said that developments have to happen fast. He insisted that we must take chances and learn about the problems as we go. NCET's Jeff Morgan envisaged a stepped approach and proposed targets for the year 2000: all schools connected; a networked multimedia computer in every classroom; all learners network literate; all teachers confident users.

A BT representative, responding to the repeated request for special consideration for schools, said: "If schools don't pay for their time on-line then someone else has to. Who?" The answer, as BT well knows, is that if everyone continues passing the buck we will all pay by living in an impoverished society.

Don Cruikshank could end up as the hero of the hour, although he is probably pushing his responsibilities as far as they will go. "I am not here to dictate to schools but to promote a dialogue between Government, the education community and industry," he says.

Rumours abound, however, that Oftel will quietly drop the Universal Service Fund idea after the consultation period, given the hostility from the telecom industry.

Don Cruikshank would then become the villain. Can you blame him if he might prefer the wrath of a handful of teachers to that of the politicians and telecom giants? If the costs were ultimately passed on to telephone subscribers, they would be upset too - after all, what do they pay taxes for?

One delegate leaving the consultation said: "I am tired of hearing about this experiment in the Highlands or that Internet project in mid-Wales. What we must address are the needs of the children in Handsworth, Rotherham and Glasgow. Oftel can't do that alone, neither can the Department for Education and Employment or the National Council for Educational Technology and the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. It will need the most imaginative partnerships, all-out energy and inventiveness.

"The sad thing is that in our hour of need, we have to listen to the little minds who are making big money. No one who matters is doing anything substantial. The Oftel proposal is at least a way forward."

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