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Slow steps on the Highway in the EU
From: David Farber <farber () central cis upenn edu>
Date: Mon, 20 Feb 1995 11:38:57 -0500
Herewith copy of two articles from today's "The Independent" newspaper
Liberalisation issues overlooked as conference turns into a media even,
finds Andrew Marshall (The Independent 20.2.95 - View from Brussels)
Slow steps on Europe's hi-tech highway
Martin Bangemann, commissioner for information technology has to steer EU
telecommunications policy through both internal and international
This weekend the European Commission is hosting a special G7 meeting in
Brussels on information technology. It is not getting off to a promising
start. A great deal of money and time has been devoted to making this high
prestige event successful. It is the first time the Commission has hosted a
G7 conference, composed of the US, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Canada
and Italy. But even officials in the Commission complain that the event is
largely devoid of substance and they describe it as "just a media event".
Many of those attending a meeting last Friday to set up the conference
emerged disappointed and cynical about the whole exercise.
It is hard to know what a media event it will be given that the media are
excluded from most of its aspects. There is a separate "media showcase"
intended to demonstrate the marvels of new technology but this is not
working well either. Belgacom, the Belgian telecommunications operator, has
had problems providing the special lines needed to make the events work.
The publicity material explaining what the showcase is has been delayed
because of problems in the Commission. And the public relations firm hired
to promote the event, Charles Barker in London, has enormous difficulty in
explaining what the thing is all about.
Some of the companies exhibiting at the showcase are furious that they
cannot get staff into the building to make exhibits work, or get the
technology installed, or find out what the event is for. Some delegates
have had huge trouble even getting their representatives accredited.
Commission officials have said that details of accreditation cannot be
finalised until the day before the meeting opens.
So the bureaucracy surrounding the event has been truly formidable but the
substance is slim and the process is chaotic. Several different divisions
of the Commission are involved in setting up the conference and some of
them have enormous trouble in co-ordinating with others. And yet something
will happen this week come what may.
The G7 meeting is probably not a bad metaphor for Europe's efforts to
create a new infrastructure for information technology by breaking down
existing national barriers and creating new regulations and systems. This
is being done under the banner of the "information society" - the
Commission's term for what the US calls the "information superhighway". It
is unclear what the information society is and how it differs from the
American idea, apart from the Commission's evident desire to make the whole
thing sound a little bit more cuddly.
Theoretically this weekend will be used by the Americans and the Europeans
to co-operate and co-ordinate over what vice president Al Gore calls the
global information infrastructure. There is a declaration of core
principles planned which includes:
o fair competition
o private investment and adaptable regulation
o open access to networks and universal provision of services
o equality of opportunity for citizens
o cultural and linguistic diversity, coupled with help for developing countries.
The US is way ahead of Europe in many aspects of information technology and
the aims for the meeting look insubstantial. Building a "superhighway" in
Europe is a vastly complicated affair because each EU state has its own
Commission efforts to liberalise have begun but considering that even basic
legislation from the last decade has yet to be properly implemented it will
clearly need a huge effort. The plan is to get all telecommunications
services liberalised by 1998.
The process is being accelerated by the wave of mergers and corporate
alliances which are already under way. Many of these involve link-ups
between US and European telecommunications operators. The price of getting
these arrangements agreed by the competition authorities in Washington and
Brussels is likely to be faster liberalisation in Europe.
The European authorities say that without this, a strategic alliance
between France Telecom and Deutsche Telecom may have anti-competitive
implications. The US is also considering legislation that would open its
market further to foreign investment in telecommunications but only on a
reciprocal basis - again implying the need for further liberalisation in
The key battle ground is Germany. Martin Bangemann, the commissioner for
information technology, said on Friday in Bonn that Germany should allow
the use of alternative telephone networks ahead of the 1998 deadline. This
would be a significant advance for liberalisation and is already being
considered by the government. There are a range of players knocking on
Germany's door to provide telecommunications services including Cable &
Wireless and BT.
A key argument is that Deutsche Telecom and France Telecom are also
involved in a strategic alliance with Sprint, the US telecomsoperator. AT&T
and BT oppose this alliance because they argue that they cannot penetrate
the French or German markets. But the Europeans also protest that there are
restrictions in the US market.
Reciprocal market opening allied with liberalisation in Europe could help
both sides. France is not entirely happy with this kind of bargain, fearing
the implications for privatisation of France Telecom.
Britain, having already liberalised wants Europe to press ahead faster. BT
and MCI have already made a tie-up which has been cleared by the
The Commission itself is fully committed to liberalisation by 1998. Though
there is dispute between different internal services over the route, there
are signs that officials from the competition and industry sections are now
co-operating more closely.
Officials say that US pressure this weekend on Europe to liberalise could
be very useful though they are keeping up their demands for access to the
The role of the private sector and the telecoms operators as they face
privatisation is helping to get the bandwagon rolling for liberalisation in
Europe. So whatever the fine words and speeches this weekend, market
pressures are increasingly forcing the US and Europe to co-operate on key
It's hard to hack it when the Europlugs don't fit.
By Andrew Marhsall (The Independent 20.2.95 - Brussels Days)
The sad reality of the information dream is that things fall apart.
We live in an information age. Knowledge is power. We have to put our foot
on the gas, engage gear and cruise on to the information super-highway.
Tune in, log on, hook up.
But the sad reality of the noble information dream in Europe is that for
all the big talk and thick books, things fall apart - if they work in the
first place. The single internal market is a fine thing, but it has not yet
got as far as harmonising telephone plugs and sockets switchboards, dial
tones and ail the rest of the mundane things that are the tarmac and
service stations of the fabled infobahn.
This is a particular gripe for the European press. We travel between press
centres in different cities. Once there, you are confronted by huge
problems of telecommunications. Not massive issues like universal service
or access deficit charges, the complex themes of analysis by clever people
in the European Commission, but the simplest matters: the plugs don't fit.
Nearly every international meeting ends with four or five people standing
around a small grey box muttering: "Perhaps it's the software." It never
is. It is nearly always the plugs. There are 15 countries in the European
Union and there are probably about 20 plugs - and none of them fits each
other. Most computers have lots of cables and gadgets tacked on to them in
any case to enable words of wisdom to hurtle down the line. My office
Toshiba needs a black cable with a little cigarette-box sized thing stuck
in the middle of it. As it has a BT plug on the end of it, I need a little
grey thing to convert it to a US-standard plug, which in turn plugs into a
Belgian, or French plug or whatever.
The European Parliament in Strasbourg has a completely different plug from
anywhere else in Europe and different from the rest of France. To get this
to work, I need a little brown thing and then another little black thing. I
even had to buy an extra mains cable because of the way they put the plug
sockets in. Then it works, sometimes.
Even once you have got all the little coloured things plugged into each
other, that is probably the start of your problems. You need a special card
for each different place, or sometimes a special code. The dialling tone is
different in several countries including Germany, because well, it probably
has something to do with Bismarck, or the war, or the Wirtschaftswunder. My
computer gets sniffy and refuses to recognise this, and it won't do
anything. So I have to fiddle with the software for a while. Then it
The EU is very fond of talking about its plan for an information society.
This is very different from the plain old boring American information
superhighway. It is much cleverer and more sophisticated. They are having a
huge conference of the Group of Seven industrialised nations this month, on
every conceivable aspect. Nothing much about plugs, though.
Nobody seems very interested in plugs. I called the European
Telecommunications Standard Institute, in France. ETSI has 11 technical
committees, 60 technical sub-committees and 140 working groups. It took
them quite a while to get the right extension and then their press officer
didn't know if they dealt with plugs. "It seems like such a simple
question," said Christopher J Corbett, their press officer.
It is not. He called back to say that ETSI was asked by the European
Commission to carry out a feasibility study on whether or not there should
be a harmonisation of Network Termination Points for Public Switched
Telephone Networks (plugs). Technical sub-committee TES, which looks after
General Terminal Access Requirements, has been having a really good think
about this ("Yes!" "No!") and should be ready to decide by next month
March, whether or not it is a smart idea.
If they decide it is, they wouldn't do the job themselves, but would pass
it to the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardisation in
Brussels. Then there can be a really dull argument about the Great British
Network Termination Point and its place in British tradition, I expect.
There are advantages in all of this. I have met lots of really nice people
from national telecoms companies over the years. The Danes even lent me a
computer. And there is money in this. France Telecom makes 50 francs out of
everybody who goes to the European Parliament, because they all have to buy
the Special French Black Thing.
There is also a wonderful firm called Teleadapt, based in Britain, which
will send the world's largest range of little grey, black, brown and white
things to you. If you ring them, they will talk in a soothing voice and
everything will probably be OK. Sometimes.
- Slow steps on the Highway in the EU David Farber (Feb 20)