Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-47)

MR IAN JEFFERS, MR SIMON TSE AND MR ALEX BLOWERS

TUESDAY 5 MARCH 2002

Albert Owen

  40. Do you see the re-organisation of health trusts as an opportunity perhaps to work with them and to improve this facility? Primary care trusts are being reorganised at this very moment.
  (Mr Blowers) Let us hope so.

  41. Have you had any discussions with health authorities?
  (Mr Blowers) I think we are in constant discussion with individual health authorities as and when invitations to tender come up. This question of how, at the strategic level, procurement is managed within particular sectors is an issue which the Government has now said it will look at, and indeed has asked the office of Government commerce to look at that question and to come up with some templates for how procurement may work most effectively, and that is something we very much welcome.
  (Mr Tse) I think the extension to that is that what the Assembly is looking at now is aggregated demand from the public sector to stimulate the competition. We were talking about the economics of Wales as such and looking at the number of commercial organisations that are there, and if you take that to the next logical step, it says if you look at the public sector and the amount of money it then spends on communications and the whole plethora of communications, then certainly aggregated demand is one way of looking at stimulating that particular market and competition for that market place.

Mr Ruane

  42. So if there was an uptake on health and regional general hospitals in north Wales, in Wrexham and Clwyd in my consistency, and Bangor, and the infrastructure and pipes were laid, would that mean that the areas surrounding those hospitals would be able to get cheaper access?
  (Mr Jeffers) There is always that potential. It is worth stating that when you build a network for the business community it is different to that of the residential community in a small number of aspects. We would have network that would deliver services to a university or hospital but what it does not have is breakout points or street cabinets with electronics in it and so forth, but obviously one of the dearest parts of laying any network is the physical infrastructure so it is very valid to say that, if the business can pull a supplier into an area, then it becomes a lot more competitive to open that network out to the homes properly surrounding that. So there is huge potential, without doubt.

Chairman

  43. Is there any real possibility that video conferencing and advanced services of that kind can reduce traffic congestion in the short term?
  (Mr Jeffers) Video conferencing has been one of those pipedreams for many of us. It was something that was potentially looked at and it has been talked about as the advantages of technology. Anybody who has used it to any degree in the last couple of years has probably found it a most frustrating experience. I know, as we start to see the band width increase as we move from 512 K to 1 M bit and 2 M bits and realistic pricing it will encourage more people to use it because the technology will be something that you can watch. It will be near broadcast quality. Today it will do nothing for traffic congestion because you would be totally frustrated to use it, but again that is where the industry has a great role to play because it is a fantastic example of using band width and broadband at a realistic speed. At half a Mega bit, and better still at 1 Mega bit if you are using Mega bit, you have a very realistic video conferencing service, so if you can cut down even 5 or 10 per cent it would be well worth it. I for one would swap an occasional plane journey for a video conference.

  44. One of the problems in Wales is the north/south link. If we could get that kind of quality that would help in that way but would the systems be realistic to north and south Wales? We have touched on the problems of rural areas but is the hardware in place for north/south?
  (Mr Jeffers) The band width you could say is there today. It goes back to the point Simon made earlier: if we could even build three or four video conferencing suites but do them at very realistic prices so many people could use them at a realistic price, then you would be able to afford the band width that already exists in there, and as more and more of those applications come about, then we will see that demand take off. To a degree, however, at the moment, if you look at the video conferencing applications that are out there, for an SME they are not competitive. It is quicker to jump in the car and have the meeting face-to-face, and certainly more cost effective.

Mr Ruane

  45. There are a number of objectives, including the priorities to increase the number of SMEs and technology and IT, and raising skill levels. Do you know of any examples of Objective 1 money being used to enhance Wales' broadband infrastructure?
  (Mr Jeffers) No, I do not.
  (Mr Tse) No, not from the point of view of advancing its infrastructure.

  46. Do you know of examples—perhaps not in Wales but in the rest of UK or Europe—where Objective 1 funding is being used to spread the word?
  (Mr Blowers) I think we think that there is a restriction on using Objective 1 funds for building infrastructure. I am not the expert on this but, if that is the case, then it would highlight one of the problems here: that at the moment the bottleneck is getting the infrastructure out there. The structural funds are not geared up to supporting that particular activity.

  47. My understanding is that in the past the physical infrastructure—roads and railways—were used for Objective 1 funding, and then the EU thought that that should not be a top priority, so they have lowered that as a priority.
  (Mr Blowers) I have some good news and some bad. The good is that the Government—and, indeed, the European Commission and the Spanish Presidency—are very keen to put broadband high up on the list of priorities for the Barcelona Summit. That means, I think, that there will be a ringing clarion call to member states to stimulate and promote broadband infrastructure roll-out, which is all to the good. In terms of the detail of what will then follow from that it seems to me that one of the practical implications is, do we need to look at the structural funds and rules in order to say, actually this is a priority, it should be moved back up the list, in just the same way as we spent a large amount of money in the late 1980s and early 1990s in building highways and motorways in parts of Spain, perhaps now is the time to focus on broadband infrastructure. The opportunity exists. The bad news is I have no real clarity on what will be said. I know there will be a strong statement of vision but what we would like is to get into the detail of what lies behind that, let us see some detailed proposals from the Commission on how it is going to take that forward.

  Chris Ruane: This Committee has also a parallel inquiry into Objective 1. Perhaps we can discuss that as one of our recommendations, Chairman.

  Chairman: I am sure we will be asking the WDA direct questions about what possibilities there are in that area. There are no other questions. Thank you very much, indeed, for coming today.





 
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