My usual response is that I knew I wanted to write but I had no idea what I wanted to write, and my then-boyfriend was a computer journalist and having seen what he did, I knew I could do it too. But getting into a field is one thing; staying here, as I have for over two decades, is another. There’s the fact that I get to meet interesting people and talk about interesting things - I’m always learning something new. And a couple of years ago I got to combine that with a look at the first time I ever really thought about technology, in a humorous column for PC Plus’s What if… series.
While researching it, I realised my whole career in technology journalism well might have been inspired by this proposal, when I saw a manifesto for it on TV as a child. I talked to Lord Ashdown about the plans and I asked him what other technology near-misses he’d seen. He replied he would rather have had a database of human knowledge than the Millennium Dome. Wouldn’t we all…
What if… we’d had 20 years of fibre
Broadband finally covers most of the UK, but we could have had faster connections years ago…
In 1989 Paddy Ashdown, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, proposed a nationwide fibre-optic communications network that would have revolutionised connectivity for businesses, universities and home users. The Conservative government rejected it as a ‘pie in the sky approach’ that there was no demand for and we were stuck with dial up until the turn of the century. But imagine if the Liberals – or the Lib-Lab pact – had won the 1987 election and delivered the investment in R&D that the manifesto promised to reach “the second industrial revolution, based on the sunrise technologies of micro-electronics, bio-technology and new materials”…
By 1989 British Telecom had already laid 550,000 km of fibre optic cables – but only to connect its new digital telephone exchanges together. With the new public service mandate introduced by Prime Minister Ashdown and the new information technology Minister Clive Sinclair (now Lord Sinclair of Cambridge), the focus changed to extending that backbone to universities and key technology research centres in Cambridge, Ipswich, Southampton, Silicon Glen and Newport, along with London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff. The government promised “a broad-band, interacting computer communications network for the whole of Britain”, quickly christened BICC-IT.
When the seven-year agreement to divide the UK telecoms market between BT and Mercury Interactive ended in 1990, the government ‘bought back’ the fibre that Mercury had laid along the train lines to use for BICC-IT in exchange for the contract to set up Scottish Telecom and Welsh Telecom, in preparation for discussions on devolution. Costs for the fibre optic network were high, especially when you add in the investment to revive INMOS to make the parallel-processing Transputer chips that sat at the heart of the network routers. But the North Sea oil and gas bonanza brought in cash and when the government restarted gallium arsenide production for the fast fibre-optic connections BT and St Andrews University developed together, they found a ready market for the surplus amongst manufacturers of CD drives who were looking for higher speed lasers to speed up their devices for large data-storing laserdiscs.
The promised penny on income tax was used for education funding and some of that money went into IT equipment and connections. But much of the money for BICC-IT was raised by a ‘national lottery’ hosted by Noel Edmonds and Mr Blobby that you could watch on television – or play in libraries where the first BICC-IT connected computers were publicly available.
Technology investment boomed. Researchers also began work on optical computing, using gallium arsenide lasers instead of copper connections on the motherboard. The BBC embarked on a second generation of the Domesday Project, this time focussing on science and technology. Bypassing US export controls to promise technology to future markets in eastern Europe did strain transatlantic relationships – Ashdown famously called the Co-ordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls ‘a secret committee policing the export of high technologies’.
But the Prime Minister was adamant that the investment was worthwhile; it was the more valuable side of the Victorian values Thatcher had claimed to espouse. “Just as our Victorian forebears thought it right to construct an infrastructure of roads, railways and canals to carry the commodities to support their industrial revolution, so we will need a modern infrastructure to carry the commodity for our industry. That commodity will be information. A fibre-optic network will be as essential for our future industry, based on high technology, as were the railways, canals and roads in the past.”
Early applications offered document exchange for businesses, collaboration between research teams and employment training; the government promised to train 6,000 programmers and analysts within three years and many courses were run ‘over the glass’. Email became popular (remember, you can reach the magazine at firstname.lastname@example.org). But inspired by the successes of Minitel in France, video dating services and dating forums also sprang up, along with computerised versions of shopping channels (originally planned for the UK satellite television service that never really took off without the expected government backing). Newsagents who had previously installed photocopiers put in fibre-optic connection to offer fax replacement transfer services that copied the contents of first a floppy disk then a CD or laserdisc to a remote computer.
Teletext-style Mode 7 graphics remained popular with diehard fans of the first version of Dave Braben’s massively multi-player online Elite but the second version, featuring ray-traced graphics created by Computer Concepts – who were behind the WordPerfect-beating WordWise – pushed graphical interfaces still further. Screen resolution increased in leaps and bounds to show off higher and higher resolution video content, until we get to the 4320-line High Definition screens introduced last year.
Schools and home users rejected the American ‘PC ‘in favour of 32-bit Acorn Archimedes models with built-in Econet network connections, until Amstrad produced a PC with an Econet card. Universities preferred Unix and Ethernet networks but this took a long time to spread and many businesses struggled to integrate the two networking technologies. And early in the 1990s, as well as developing the hypertext linking system behind the popular Ant browser, Tim Berners-Lee facilitated connections between BICC-IT and the ‘Internet’ used in the US, giving the connected UK a worldwide reach for its products and technologies.