British election ties up Tory plans to wire the nation with cable TV

The British election has tied in knots plans to wire the nation with cable television networks. In April, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced proposals to give private firms the initiative in linking Britain's homes with new generations of cable. The proposals give networks an impetus to extend cable TV to more viewers as well as prepare for new electronic services such as home banking.

Under the government's plan, companies would invest as much as $:2.5 billion ($3.8 billion) over a decade in wiring up cities with networks along the lines of those in the US.

But the election announcement on May 9 foiled the Conservatives' plans for cable TV - at least until voters go to the polls June 9.

The Labour Party, the main opposition party, is cautiously in favour of cabling up the country. But the party says Britain would do well not to rush ahead without ensuring that it chooses the very latest technologies.

In Britain, only 14 percent of homes, or some 2.5 million households, receive cable TV. By contrast, roughly 30 percent, or 24.8 million US homes receive cable television, according to Arbitron Ratings Company.

Led by officials in the Department of Industry, Mrs. Thatcher's government hoped the initiative would spur on industry to take advantage of new technologies and offer innovative services in addition to more television.

For example, with optical fibers or ''wideband'' coaxial copper wires, firms would give households the chance to send messages as well as receive TV signals. Thus people in their homes could dial up computers in stores or banks, either to place orders for goods or to conduct their financial affairs.

A new Labour government would probably insist that any new cabling schemes concentrate on optical fibers, which have a greater capacity to carry information than conventional copper wires. Optical fibers are more expensive than copper, so private firms interested in new cable ventures are unlikely to opt for them.

Labour would also hand to British Telecom, the state-run telecommunications company, the task of laying the new networks. By contrast, as part of its aim of bringing private firms into telecommunications, the Conservatives planned to give British Telecom a minor role in the cabling schemes.

In another facet of their telecommunications policy, the Conservatives gave a license to another company, the privately owned Mercury Communications, to run a telephone network to rival the one operated by British Telecom. Mercury's network was just getting started when the election was announced.

The firm, which has already spent (STR)60 million on buildings and hardware, has delayed any new investment until after the election. If Labour wins, it says it will nationalize Mercury and integrate it with British Telecom.

Labour has also said it would scrap the Conservative plans to sell 51 percent of British Telecom to private shareholders. The state now owns the entire company, in line with most of Western Europe, where postal and telecommunications services are firmly in the hands of national governments.

While the Conservatives openly admire the US system, in which private enterprise has the biggest say in electronic networks and telecommunications, the Labour Party favors France's approach to new cable networks.

The French Socialist government announced in November a plan to cable up 1.4 million homes by 1986, using advanced optical fibers. The state will pay for the (STR)650 million plan, which will be firmly under the telecommunications authority's control.

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