Third world first

27th October 1995 at 00:00
Tony Blair stirred memories of Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology" by announcing that schools would be wired to the information superhighway under Labour - a process unlikely to begin until 1997.

Singapore's schools have been wired for some time and Internet access for all primary schools is expected next year. But Singapore is small, rich and technologically advanced.

More surprising is that Malaysia, a developing country, will have its 7,000 primary and 1,500 secondary schools "on the Net" next year.

With 70 per cent of the world's population, Asia has less than 4 per cent of Internet usage. In contrast Britain is equal second with Germany among world Internet users (the United States tops the list, with more than half of world users).

Last week's Internet Asia 95 conference heard that both Britain and Germany have three times the Internet usage of France and 10 times that of Italy or Spain. The tremendous commercial opportunities now offered by the Internet have inspired Asian countries to catch up fast.

A third of the delegates were from banks and finance houses and many Asian countries, including China, are wiring up their countries' schools and libraries.

There are great opportunities for British education in the explosion of Asian Internet services, Like Singapore, the Maldives bases its education system on British A-levels and O-levels (yes, O-levels). With its population thinly spread over 200 inhabited islands, the Maldives has a considerable interest in English language distance learning materials.

This interest was also evident in Malaysia, Indonesia and China. English is the common language of Asia and of the Internet.

The delegates all agreed with the Internet maxim that businesses must "be on or be gone". I was left wondering if Britain was not wasting an early lead in Internet access and an increasingly valuable asset the English language.

Content is where the delegates felt the opportunities lay. Will the UK be well placed to provide content if it is slower than many developing countries in wiring its schools to the superhighway?

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