IT industry must have the freedom to grow

Shadow minister for industry and technology for the Conservatives, Michael Fabricant, explains why a light touch from government...

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Shadow minister for industry and technology for the Conservatives, Michael Fabricant, explains why a light touch from government is the best approach




Earlier this year, I attended a broadband conference where David Isenberg, one of the US founders of the internet, said of the telcos, "Just give us a broad pipe, then get the hell out of the way." After all, it was not so long ago that telephones were hard-wired into the wall and you took what you were given by BT.

The Conservative view of computing and the internet age is not too dissimilar. Legislate if it is an aid to the industry and to growth, otherwise just let the industry experts get on with it.

Of course, there has to be some legislation. Intellectual property rights need to be protected, infrastructure needs to be secure, a safe system for cash transfers needs to be encouraged, and the tax system must be transparent and user-friendly.

Monopolies must not be allowed to strangle development. Local loop unbundling has become more viable recently, but France and Germany still have more open systems. And, like the present government, we believe cyber-squatting has to be controlled.

There must also be a greater understanding by government of the fragility of the network. The US has established an agency specifically to counter cyberterrorism. The UK has no such agency and remains vulnerable. And it is not just terrorists and hackers. A major fire in a tunnel carrying fibre optic cabling could severely disable telecoms in the UK - it is not just the West Coast Main Line train service which links the north-west to the capital.

The internet is still barely up and running - it is at the Model T Ford stage. Despite the best efforts of spam-filtering companies, spam is now estimated to account for 80% of all e-mail traffic, and this will get worse as the internet develops. Governments have a role to play in constructing cross-national agreements to ensure that the internet does not become constipated with the sludge of unwanted spam.

But what is the future of the internet? I believe the long-term future for the delivery of television will be via video streaming over what we now call the internet. And I am not referring to the herky-jerky pictures most people experience on their laptops.

Digital television compression enables broadcast-quality television streaming so that, in time, consumers will be able to watch ABC Sydney or WGBH Boston as easily as BBC2 at present. But this requires the delivery of true broadband: streaming rates of at least 2mbps, and probably 4mbps. Companies such as Video Networks in London are already providing a broadband TV-on-demand service, but this is just a beginning.

The present government boasts and spins about the take-up of broadband in the UK, but who but a government minister would claim that "broadband" is 128kbps? It may download photos faster than a 38kbps dial-up connection, but - like the Model T Ford - it won't win any grand prix, nor will it deliver broadcast-quality TV. There is a very real fear that just as we suffered by being the first nation in the world with a public TV service with a 405-line system, our present internet structure will not meet the needs of the future.

So how can government help? There needs to be a new regime to encourage the lighting up of Britain's dark fibres. R&D tax credits need to be simplified and not subject to different interpretation by different tax inspectors.

The private sector needs to be encouraged and not be leeched to support administrators of the public sector. But most of all, a Conservative government would understand the needs of the IT industry: to allow it to deliver services and make profits. And it would take the advice of David Isenberg: let the industry get on with it and know when the hell to get out of the way.

Michael Fabricant is the shadow minister for industry and technology

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