Agenda for Action in the UK:  Continued

CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION

PREFACE

1.1 This report, which is the first Select Committee report from either House of the United Kingdom Parliament to be published electronically,[1] is about one of the most important technological developments of this century. Directly or indirectly, the digital and communications revolution will affect us all. Previous studies[2] have focused on the infrastructure which will be needed to build the Information Superhighways[3] in the UK. As the physical infrastructure develops, the focus of attention needs to move on to what the superhighways will carry. Our enquiry concentrated on the applications of the superhighways in society. For the purposes of the enquiry we took the term Information Superhighway to mean a publicly accessible network capable of transferring large amounts of information at high speed between users. The terms of reference of the enquiry are printed in Appendix 3 below.

1.2 The report is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1 discusses the technology behind the development of the information superhighways, and the infrastructure in the United Kingdom. Chapter 2 discusses national information infrastructure policies. Chapter 3 discusses some of the approaches which other countries, and the European Union, are adopting to the Information Superhighways, with a view to seeing what lessons the United Kingdom can learn from these international perspectives. It also outlines current parliamentary developments, including those in the House of Lords. Chapter 4 discusses the views of witnesses. Chapter 5 discusses the Opinion of the Committee and its key recommendations.

1.3 Our most important recommendations are repeated in Chapter 6, which outlines a 40-point agenda for action in the UK. Our recommendations include the setting up of an Information Society Task Force in the UK, similar to that which has operated successfully in the US. We recommend fundamental changes to the regulatory framework. We recommend specific actions to be taken by Government, including the promotion of electronic publishing to facilitate widespread access to Government publications. We also make recommendations on the subjects of universal access; education; health care; environmental benefits; electronic publishing and archiving; encryption and verification; and grants.

1.4 Our enquiry lasted for five months, beginning at the end of January 1996, during which we heard 16 formal sessions of oral evidence. We also received a large number of written submissions for the enquiry. The Committee took evidence on the state of development of the information superhighway in the United Kingdom and the rest of the world, and paid particular attention to the barriers to be overcome en route to the creation of an Information Society. We concentrated on services and applications, how the information superhighway could and should be used, the impacts which are likely to result, and the role to be played by Government. Central to the role of Government were the themes of leadership, promotion and inward investment, standards and compatibility, security of payment, access to Government information, verification of information, and regulations including copyright law, data protection, confidentiality and censorship. The enquiry also took a broadbased approach and considered all of the above in relation to the following main sectors: public information, commerce, finance, education, industrial training, health, social services and entertainment. We are grateful to everyone who helped with our enquiry, including those who submitted formal evidence, who are listed in Appendix 2. Most of the oral and written evidence has been published in two volumes which are available separately from this report.

1.5 The Committee carried out a number of visits, which convinced us that the technology needed to build the Information Superhighways already exists in the UK. Two members visited NYNEX cable communications company. The minutes of the Committee's visits to the British Telecommunications (BT) and Nortel Technology laboratories are printed in Appendices 5 and 6. The minutes of our visit to Acorn Online Media, St Matthew's Primary School and Netherhall School in Cambridge are printed in Appendix 7. We also visited the computer department at University College London, for a demonstration of video-conferencing using Super-JANET[4] and the Institute of Physics for a demonstration by Institute of Physics publishing. In addition, the Committee visited Boston (Massachusetts), Washington DC and Raleigh (North Carolina). The minutes of our US visit are printed in Appendix 8. We acknowledge our thanks to all who helped arrange these visits, and for the large amount of information which was provided during them.

INTRODUCTION

1.6 The world is undergoing a technological revolution and entering the age of the Information Society. The combination of information technology and high speed communications is breaking down the traditional barriers to the movement of information (distance, location, time and volume) at an unprecedented rate. Information technology is becoming widely accessible and as a result a vast new range of applications and opportunities is arising. As the Bangemann Report[5] said "this revolution adds huge new capacities to human intelligence and constitutes a resource which changes the way we work together and the way we live together". The potential technological, economic, and social upheavals resulting from the information revolution could be of the same order of magnitude as those arising from the shift away from an agricultural to an industrial economy.

1.7 Although the information superhighway is only one component in the move to an information society, it is as important to the movement of information as dual carriageways and motorways are to the movement of cars. The information superhighway thus has a central role to play in the new information revolution and as such it was taken as the starting point by the Committee. For the purposes of this enquiry we have defined the information superhighway as a publicly accessible network capable of transferring large amounts of information at high speed between users. This broad definition transcends the physical nature of the technology employed.

1.8 The most public face of the information superhighway of the future is the Internet, which is a global network of computers linked mainly via the telephone system and the academic, research and commercial computing networks. The Internet is a fledgling superhighway network which is limited by the rate at which the network components can transmit and handle data. The Internet is not a genuine superhighway because it does not offer the basic capability of twoway realtime video transmission and interactivity. It is, however, widely available and highly functional as an information exchange and electronic mail service. The Internet also provides a useful prototype from which a full information superhighway might evolve. Part of that evolution has been the development of a userfriendly interface in the form of the World Wide Web (WWW). The WWW only became a functioning part of the Internet in 1990 but the growth in the number of computer hosts[6] connected to the Internet since then has been exponential: a few tens of thousands of hosts in the late 1980s, one million hosts by 1992, three million by 1994, during 1995 the five million host mark was passed[7] and in January 1996 the world total was 9,472,224.

TECHNOLOGY

1.9 A key reason for the rapid growth in Internet use has been the ease of use of the World Wide Web (WWW). The WWW allows access to a global network of computers by millions of people with no formal training in computer technology. "Surfing the net--moving from one part of the network to another--has already become a popular leisure activity, displacing television viewing.[8] It is not necessary to learn a series of difficult commands, nor to understand the highly complex technology which lies behind it, and which is outlined in the following paragraphs.

1.10 The first important step in the route towards the modern Information Society and the information superhighway was the ability to represent data in digital form as binary digits (or bits).[9] These bits could then be stored electronically, and be transmitted either as electrical or light pulses over a physical network or by broadcast signals between sites. Almost all sectors involved in information in some form (including the broadcast media, music industry, telephony, photography and film making) are now converging on digital technology. Digitisation allows text, images, sound and graphics to be stored, edited, manipulated and interacted within the same format, and this in turn has led to the development of the multimedia industry. Access to huge volumes of digital information is already available through the use of compact discs (CDs, and CDROMs[10] for computers) and other digital storage media. Transmitting this information from one site to another, or gaining remote access to information available elsewhere is the critical next step in the development of the Information Society.

1.11 Digital data are already transmitted over traditional telephone lines (a pair of twisted copper cables with a standard capacity of about 64 Kbits per second (64 Kbit/s)) although the rate of transmission is slow, and it is often slowed down even further by the rate at which many computer modems work and by the amount of traffic carried. The telephone network is thus often described as being `narrow band' because of its limited capacity. The telephone network does, however, have the advantage of being the most widely available network (in the United Kingdom and around the world) over which information in digital form can be transmitted. An improvement on this is ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) which is a digital service standard that can effectively double the `bandwidth' (transmission rate) of a copper twistedpair connection over distances of up to a few kilometres. ISDN also permits direct connection of a personal computer to the telephone network using an ISDN terminal adaptor. The greater bandwidth (128 KBit/s) makes ISDN suitable for rapid transmission of text, data, voice and still images.

1.12 The transmission of moving images (e.g. video and television pictures) is considerably more dataintensive and requires a different set of solutions: either alternative physical connections (e.g. fibre optic or coaxial cables), and/or digital compression technology (see below). The term `broadband' is used to describe a network infrastructure capable of carrying information in any format (e.g. video, images, sound and text) and having the capacity for twoway flow of this information (and thus interactivity) in realtime.

1.13 Copper coaxial cables (e.g. those used for TV aerial connections where a solid inner conductor is surrounded by a dielectric[11] and a tubular outer conductor) are capable of carrying broadband signals at least over a few kilometres before signal attenuation becomes a problem. Coaxial cables are currently used by cable television companies to deliver at most a few tens of standard (analogue) television and radio channels to their customers. With digital signals and compression the number of channels available could be significantly higher. The coaxial cables are not, however, being used for twoway interaction. This is provided to a limited extent by using phone lines (usually installed along side the TV cable) as the return path of information to the cable company (with a modem if a PC is involved in the interaction). A full `symmetrical' return path via the coaxial link, to allow the user to send a video signal of good quality, would require the user to have the use of a cable modem. In the United Kingdom the Joint Academic Network (JANET) which links university and other higher education sites is based on coaxial cable and twistedpair technology. Data transmission rates over JANET range from 9.6 Kbit/s to 2 Mbit/s where the network has been upgraded.

1.14 The greatest capacity for rapid data transmission lies with optical fibres. These are fibres made from high purity glass with a high refractive index core and a lower refractive index sheath.[12] Data are transmitted along the fibres as high frequency pulses of light and the fibres operate because there is total internal reflection at the interface between the core and sheath. The fibres are cheap to produce, can operate in the Gbit per second range, and suffer little signal attenuation over long distances. The only drawback to their widespread use is that of the optoelectronics required for the interconversion of electrical and optical signals. At present the optoelectronics are both complex and expensive.

1.15 With digital compression technology the volume of data which can be transmitted over a network can be greatly increased. Software is used to reduce the data required to represent the information, for example by recording changes in the information rather than every item of data. With this technology it is possible to compress a videoquality signal into about 2 Mbit/s and broadcast quality TV signals into about 6 MBit/s. The technology of digital compression and the way in which the data are sent over networks is advancing rapidly and it is now possible to achieve limited broadband capabilities with a twistedpair connection. The table below is reproduced from the House of Commons Trade and Industry Committee report on Optical Fibre Networks, HC 285-I, Session 1993-94, July 1994 and lists the bandwidth capabilities of various cables using digital transmission, at that time. During the Committee's visit to British Telecommunications' (BT) research and development laboratories at Martlesham Heath,[13] we were shown that the bandwidth of a twisted-pair cable could now be increased to 25 Mbit/s over 1 km, thus offering the possibility of multiple broadcastquality TV channels being made available (and twoway broadband interactivity) over the existing telephone network.

Table

Approximate bandwidth of different cables using digital signals (July 1994)

Type of cable Over 1 km:

Mbit/second
Over 3 km:

Mbit/second
Over 10 km:

Mbit/second
Twisted-pair (copper) 6 2 0.5
Cable TV coaxial 1000 150 25
Optical fibre >10,000 >10,000 >10,000

1.16 In addition to digital compression the way in which data are transmitted over a network affects the nature of information (low or highly data intensive) that it is possible to send. Most types of information (including computer data) do not need to be sent in a continuous stream and instead can be sent over a network in short packets: the technology is called packet switching. Telephone conversations, for example, customarily include pauses that are long in relation to the time scales of packet switching and this opens the possibility of transmitting a number of different data streams at the same time. The network exchanges direct the addressed packages of information from many users along a single interexchange cable and then onto the appropriate receiving users. The advantage of this is that space over the network cable connections is not being wasted during the pauses when a computer is processing the information that it has received. A refined version of this technology is called Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM). The ATM standard uses data packets of uniform size to guarantee a transmission rate for the connection and this makes it possible to packetswitch high dataintensity information such as realtime video pictures. The packets used in ATM are 53 characters[14] long: the first five contain the address information and the remaining 48 are the data.

1.17 Access to the prototype information superhighway is at present through computer terminals and, in some places, interactive television connections. These are principally at academic and research institutions, business locations and, increasingly, at schools and in the home. Although the equipment required is becoming more widely available and cheaper, the present distribution of access has the potential to polarise the population into technology `haves' and `have nots'. The predominant interface with the information superhighway is currently the personal computer and this in itself may be sufficient to alienate many potential users. A consortium of companies has announced their collaboration to develop low cost, userfriendly interfaces, based on the television set. A key feature of these userfriendly developments is that only limited computing power is needed in the interface device. The main computing requirements (e.g. processing, and data storage) are carried out by very powerful computers serving a local area and the user connects to these computers via a network (so called network computing). If the connection between the user device and the main computer serving the network is broadband then network computing has the potential to be as fast and powerful as using a personal computer directly.

Information superhighway infrastructure in the United Kingdom

1.18 In the United Kingdom the basic infrastructure for the information superhighways of the future is expanding rapidly with major investments being made by telecommunications operators, with cable companies currently taking the lead.[15] At present, the sheer volume of traffic for some services and applications (e.g. access to the Internet) is a major problem, and the data transmission rates that are generally available over standard (twisted pair) telephone lines make downloading of pictures and video slow or impractical during much of the day. A wider use of optical fibres and copperbased links with digital compression technology could alleviate some of these problems. At the high bandwidth end of the spectrum in the United Kingdom, nearly 90 sites (mostly universities) are now linked to a greatly enhanced version of the Joint Academic Network (JANET) known as `SuperJANET', and it is anticipated that all universities in the United Kingdom will be connected to this network over the next three years. SuperJANET uses optical fibres and state of the art digital switching technology to offer two services: a 34 MBit/s service for text and data with limited video and voice capability, and a service being upgraded to 155 MBit/s (and possibly to 2,480 MBit/s in the future) for carrying realtime interactive video and voice traffic in addition to text, data and images. Six institutions in Edinburgh have already taken the lead in developing a `Metropolitan Area Network' to link all their sites across the city, and give them access to SuperJANET. There are also plans to extend the network to local schools, colleges, libraries and the national museums of Scotland.[16]

1.19 The Department of Health recently announced that it had awarded major contracts to British Telecommunications (BT) and Mercury to provide the health service with its own dedicated broadband superhighway. The network would be fully interconnected allowing traffic between General Practitioners, hospitals, dentists, and Health Service Authorities etc. within and across regions. Access would also be possible to news and bulletin boards, national and international databases, central libraries, the Prescription Pricing Authority, and the Central Register. Similar `intranets' are now also being installed by many companies and Government Departments.[17]

1.20 Separate from the academic and sectorspecific superhighways are networks currently being laid for domestic use, principally by cable companies. These networks use a hybrid of all three cable transmission media: typically optical fibre from the cable company to local distribution nodes, coaxial cable into the home and, in many cases, a traditional copper cable providing a telephone service. As discussed in the previous section this telephone link can also be used for a narrow band return signal to the cable company. Broadband return communications are not yet available,[18] but if public demand for high quality videotelephones increased then this would almost certainly change.

1.21 The most extensive fibre optic networks in the United Kingdom belong to the telecommunications companies. In addition, ISDN connections have been made to over 8,000 business premises, but the cost of the terminal electronics, which until recently was high, has made the take-up rate of ISDN connections to the home much lower in the UK than is the case in Germany, for example. Because of telecommunications regulations set out in 1991, BT and the other national telephone operators are restricted in the services they can offer: they cannot convey broadcast entertainment until at least 1998, when the situation may be reviewed; and they cannot provide their own broadcast entertainment services (e.g. video on demand) until at least 2001. From April 1994, however, the national public telephone operators (including BT and Mercury) have been allowed to own cable TV franchises. A Command Paper on `Creating the Superhighways of the Future'[19] said: "If these companies bid successfully for new LDO [Local Delivery Operator] licences, the Government will also be prepared to issue these companies with Telecommunications Act licences which enable them to supply entertainment services within the franchise areas".


1. The Internet reference is http://www.tsoinfo.gov.uk/document/inforsoc.htm The Committee's e-mail address is as follows: hol.science&tech@parliament.uk Back

2. Particularly, in the parliamentary context, the Report by the House of Commons Trade and Industry Committee on Optical Fibre Networks (HC 285-I, Session 1993-94, July 1994).Back

3. The term `superhighway' was used by the US Vice-President Al Gore to describe an infrastructure by which information could be transmitted electronically. The principal feature distinguishing a superhighway from existing telecommunications networks was that it should be capable of handling the two-way delivery of text, pictures, sound and video (ie multimedia). Back

4. Appendix 4 contains a list of acronyms. Back

5. Europe and the Global Information Society. Recommendations to the European Council by the High-Level Group on the Information Society (26 May 1994).Back

6. A host is a computer or computer system providing a service to users (e.g. storing World Wide Web pages) over a network. Back

7. Data on Internet hosts from The Economist, 1 July 1995.Back

8. Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (paperback edition, 1996), p 58, estimates that "by the year 2005 Americans will spend more hours on the Internet (or whatever it is called) than watching network television." Back

9. A bit is a single binary digit (1 or 0), two to the power ten bits (approximately one thousand bits) is a kilobit (Kbit), two to the power of twenty bits (approximately one million bits) is a megabit (Mbit), and one gigabit (Gbit) is ten to the power nine bits (one thousand million bits). For comparison one second of a fax transmission might contain 64 Kbits, and one second of broadcast quality TV around 140 Mbits.Back

10. Compact Disc Read Only Memory. Back

11. A dielectric is an insulator. In coaxial cables air or plastic is usually used as the dielectric.Back

12. Definition from The Larousse Dictionary of Science and Technology, 1995.Back

13. See Appendix 5 for the minutes of the visit.Back

14. 424 bits. Back

15. An excellent review of the United Kingdom infrastructure for the information superhighway can be found in Information Superhighways: the UK National Information Infrastructure, a report by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (May 1995). The subject was also covered in depth by the House of Commons Trade and Industry Committee in Optical Fibre Networks (HC 285-I, Session 1993-94).Back

16. Times Higher Education Supplement, 10 March 1995. Back

17. In the USA, however, the Committee heard that companies would rather use the Internet for long-distance network use instead of installing their own networks - and thus adequate encryption was required to make the Internet secure (see Appendix 8).Back

18. Two-way broadband communication trials are underway in the United Kingdom and the Sub-Committee visited what claims to be the world's largest public trial of the technology in Cambridge, England. See Appendix 7 for minutes of the visit. Back

19. "Creating the Superhighways of the Future: Developing Broadband Communications in the UK" Cm 2734 November 1994.Back

 


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