CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION
1.1 This report, which is the first Select Committee report from
either House of the United Kingdom Parliament to be published
electronically, 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
have focused on the infrastructure which will be needed to build
the Information Superhighways 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 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.
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 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
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 and in January 1996 the world total was 9,472,224.
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. 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).
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 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 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. 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, 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
Approximate bandwidth of different cables using digital signals
|Type of cable|| Over 1 km:|
| Over 3 km:|
| Over 10 km:|
|Twisted-pair (copper)|| 6|| 2|| 0.5|
|Cable TV coaxial|| 1000|| 150 || 25 |
|Optical fibre|| >10,000|| >10,000|| >10,000|
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 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. 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.
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.
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,
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' 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&[email protected] 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).
4. Appendix 4 contains a list of acronyms.
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.
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."
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.
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
13. See Appendix 5 for the minutes of the visit.Back
14. 424 bits.
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,
16. Times Higher Education Supplement, 10 March 1995.
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.
19. "Creating the Superhighways of the Future: Developing
Broadband Communications in the UK" Cm 2734 November