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The Original Discussion Paper

‘Infotainment’ Means Many New Jobs
Michael Aldrich 1981

ConTel UK is an acronym for Consumer Telecommunications United Kingdom, a proposal to connect UK households via multi-channel cable and provide ‘infotainment’ [information and entertainment] services to consumers.

The project would create new industries, new jobs, new export opportunities and new wealth. It would require capital investment in cable and control systems alone of the order of £2-3 billion [at 1981 prices] over a 20 year period and it would be financed in, stages, by the private sector.

The services provided to the individual UK consumer [men ,women and children] would include national broadcast television, national and international teletext, videotex, films, two-way transactional services for shopping and banking, home publishing, home educational services, home computing, home message mail and facsimile, and home alarm systems [fire, medical and intrusion and, even, electronic baby sitting.]

ConTel is not science fiction. At this time, there are some 17 major, privately financed, working, experimental installations in the United States providing the full range of services referred to above, using a variety of techniques, mainly videotex, two-way cable TV, and teletext. No-one, however, has yet built an integrated system of mass appeal and attractive operating economics. But presentation of the design can only be a matter of time, after all the economic and consumer measurement data has been collected, analysed and synthesised.

In the UK, apart from a Pay TV experiment, there is much talk but little action, primarily because ConTel does not easily fit into existing structures. Gas, electricity and water, at the turn of the century, faced similar predicaments.

ConTel offers a massive opportunity to create national wealth. ConTel touches many industries – manufacturing for the hardware, creative industries for the software, service industries for maintenance, distribution industries to deal with changing patterns in retailing, education industries for provision of new types of learning systems, new kinds of publishing industries to handle electronic media, and a host of new service industries to provide completely new types of service from home security to electronic baby sitting.

ConTel is not a company, nor an organisation. It is a concept. Many companies will spring up to provide the services. The liberalisation of the telecommunications monopoly is already provoking licence bids to provide network competition to British Telecom. The danger is that a piecemeal approach to competing for BT’s most profitable honey pots will cloud the overall information technology opportunity. ConTel is complementary to BT not competitive with BT although there are bound to be overlaps. ConTel does not seek to tap BT’s lucrative business telecommunications activity. ConTel seeks to create a new and infinitely larger business and, where practical, ConTel will interface with BT, just as roads connect with railway stations as complementary transportation networks.

The over-riding current requirement is to create an environment in which ConTel can exist. The major considerations are regulatory, legal and personal. The UK urgently needs an homogeneous communications authority on the lines of the US FCC [perhaps a British Communications Authority.] On the legal front the Office of Fair Trading has already established a working party on redefining consumer and contact law to cope with electronic transactions. On the personal level, the UK must establish a Privacy Institution to protect the rights of the individual.

There are other, more practical, requirements. Technical standards need to be established to provide for inter-connection of different ConTel areas established in different areas. Operating licences for ConTel systems could be issued and regulated by a British Communications Authority [BCA] on similar lines to the IBA franchises. The BCA would also regulate BT, broadcast radio and TV and all private and public networks.

One of the major factors in improving the standard of living of the population in the last century has been the new services provided to the home- running water, electricity, gas, telephone and television. With the exception of television, all the services were pioneered by private enterprise and today none are subsidised by the public sector. The population is prepared to pay for services that have value and private enterprise is prepared to invest money in creating satisfied consumers through the provision of attractive services.

Developments in information technology now make it possible to deliver to the home services that substitute for existing services by being more cost-effective and new services that will create new wealth and directly improve the quality of life for the population. The technology to bring about the transformation already exists. What is unclear is the rate of change, the particular economic profiles of the different services that can be provided and the rate of acceptability by the consumer.

In pursuing the developments, there are also constraints brought about by the regulatory environment in the UK, the need for change in contract and consumer law to cater for the new electronic world and the need to protect the privacy of the individual. In short, some existing institutions are unable to cope with the new media and a radical approach must be taken to build new institutions that are relevant to the last part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century.

ConTel is a conduit connecting what are today separate services to make them more accessible to the consumer, more usable and more effective. ConTel is based on multi-channel TV connected to household in much the same way as electric cable. The cable would typically have up to 150 channels and would plug into TV-like devices in the home as well as into home alarm systems and
environmental control systems. It would probably utilise a distribution box not unlike an electricity fuse box.

The channels would support both downstream signalling [for,say, broadcast TV] and upstream signalling [ for videotex, teleshopping etc.] Consumers would pay in much the same way as for today’s telephone – a flat rate service charge, plus metered charges for services used. Suppliers would rent channel time to advertise and to provide transactional services. Some channels would probably be reserved for public services.

Experimental systems, financed by private enterprise, need to be built and operated. UK cable is largely theoretical and urgently needs working experience. Consortia should be encouraged to create new industrial groupings and to spread knowledge.

A considerable amount of academic research is concurrently required, particularly economics [disposable income projection by socio/economics groups, service sector economics], demographics, behaviour, social and political perspectives, man/machine interfaces, as well as some engineering aspects.

Industry and commerce will need to analyse ConTel’s opportunities and constraints both individually and as interest groups. Investors will want to see factual projections based on practical results.

ConTel has lasting worldwide implications. The business should survive for around 100 years. The UK can build an industrial and knowledge base which would be highly marketable. In due course cable television will be seen as significant precursors for ConTel. Prestel, however, was technology -driven, cable television was market-driven. ConTel must be market-driven.

The convergence of advanced consumer electronics is every bit as vital for developing information-technology based industries as converging business electronics to provide office systems. There are likely to be more people in the home than in the office and ConTel will directly impact the quality of life.

ConTel is a simple idea. Private enterprise will connect the home to the world of ‘infotainment’ using environmentally acceptable cable. Satellite communications will be part of the system.

Government’s role is to create a framework within which ConTel can be achieved and regulated for the benefit of the nation. As a first step the Government should encourage private enterprise quickly to build and operate ConTel systems.

ConTel UK would be financed by consumers, suppliers wishing to use ConTel as a common carrier and value- added services provided by ConTel.


This paper is part of the Michael Aldrich Archive donated to the Aldrich Library at the University of Brighton in the section titled ‘Teleputers and Cable Systems.

 
 

     

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