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16 December 2002updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

Oh Lord, log them on, but not yet

The PM promises broadband for every school by 2006. Roger Ridey asks what happened to an earlier pro

By Roger Ridey

The phrase “internet time” was coined a few years ago during those heady days of the dotcom boom. The website defines it this way: “Increasingly, this is the pace at which western culture operates. It relates to our preoccupation with speed and technology and our need to keep up with the information age. Internet time implies that something is happening very quickly or that something must be done ultra fast because it may cease to exist tomorrow.”

While the dotcom boom did, in fact, cease to exist in spectacular fashion, the concept of internet time lives on. But sadly, it seems, not for new Labour. Last month, in a speech to delegates at the government’s first “e-summit”, Tony Blair announced to a gathering of industry leaders and politicians from around the world that the government will provide funding to deliver broadband connections to every school in the country by 2006.

“For improving skills and tackling the digital divide, our schools are fundamental,” the Prime Minister said. “Because education is the number one priority, and because we believe in opportunity for all, every primary and secondary school in the country will have high-speed, always-on access to the vast resources of the internet.”

The Prime Minister went further, vowing that “a total of more than £1bn will be invested in networking our public services. Not only for every primary and secondary school, but broadband connectivity for every GP surgery, every hospital and every primary care trust in the country.” The entire criminal justice system, too, would be wired up to broadband.

An admirable undertaking, to be sure, but haven’t we heard it all before?

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Go back to the Labour Party conference in Brighton in 1995. In his speech to the conference, Blair, as part of his efforts to convince British business and industry that new Labour was their new friend, announced that a deal had been done with BT. If elected, Labour would remove the restrictions imposed by John Major’s government that prohibited BT from entering the broadcast entertainment market. The Conservatives had sought to keep BT out of the market in order to allow cable companies the chance to build their own networks. “In return for access to the market, I can announce [BT] have agreed, as they build their [fibre optic] network, to connect up every school, every college, every hospital and every library in Britain for free,” Blair told the conference.

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Once in government, new Labour kept its part of the bargain. In April 1998, Margaret Beckett, then president of the Board of Trade, announced that the government intended to give BT the right to compete with cable and satellite broadcasters such as ntl and Sky.

In March of this year, BT was duly awarded a 15-year broadcasting licence. By this time, the telecoms giant had lost interest in becoming a broadcasting giant. After being awarded the licence, Christopher Bland, the BT chairman, told a Financial Times conference in London: “We plainly will not compete with BSkyB, who is very dominant at that end of the market.”

He went on to admit that “BT does not have an entertainment-enabled network” and thus “cannot deliver broadcast-quality pictures”.

But all that is beside the point. The government had given BT what it had at one time desperately wanted. So why, in November 2002, more than seven years after doing his deal in Brighton, was the Prime Minister announcing the government’s intention to do at the taxpayers’ expense what BT had promised to do for free? Does new Labour now know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a broken promise?

An even more pressing question, though, concerns why it should take four years to give all of our schools, GPs, hospitals and other public services a broadband connection to the internet. In 2006, it will have been 11 years since Blair did his deal with BT. That’s a very long time in ordinary time; it’s a millennium in internet time.

For inspiration, perhaps the Prime Minister should look to Wales. “By March 2003, 47 per cent of Welsh schools will have a broadband connection – primary schools will have a 2Mbps connection [about 40 times faster than a standard dial-up connection], and secondary schools an 8Mbps [160 times faster] link,” Andrew Davies, the Welsh Assembly minister for economic development and ICT (information and communications technology), told the technology news website ZDNet earlier this month. “In the NHS, 67 per cent of Welsh GP practices already have a connection of at least 256Kbps.” While 256Kbps is a mere five times faster than a standard dial-up internet connection, it is surely fast enough to allow a “GP to e-mail a prescription to a pharmacist” – which was one of the more ludicrous examples of the benefits of broadband offered by the Prime Minister in his e-summit speech.

The success in Wales can be largely attributed to the Broadband Wales Programme, a five-year, £100m scheme to provide affordable broadband to 310,000 homes and 67,000 businesses launched by the Welsh Assembly last summer.

So, while Wales leads the way in broadband, it appears that the rest of us in Britain will have to hurry up and wait. Which is a shame, particularly when it comes to our schoolchildren. They deserve better, Prime Minister. And they deserve it in internet time, not new Labour’s spin-now-and-hope-they-forget-about-it-by-the-election time.