Les Huckfield – 1978 Speech on Viewdata and Teletext

Below is the text of the speech made by Les Huckfield, the then Under-Secretary of State for Industry, in the House of Commons on 4 April 1978.

I thank the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren) for raising this important subject tonight. The CEEFAX and ORACLE systems of the BBC and the IBA respectively, and the Viewdata system of the Post Office, mark important advances in communications. I commend the hon. Member for the constructive way in which he made his points. He quite rightly commended the organisations concerned and their staffs directly concerned with the projects. These are fine British achievements, which have given this country a world lead, and on behalf of the Government I offer my congratulations to all concerned. I shall certainly pass on to Sir William Barlow and his staff the hon. Gentleman’s very kind words of praise.

The hon. Gentleman has gone into some of the differences between the two systems, but I know that he will understand that the BBC and the IBA come within the areas of responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who I am sure will take very careful note of what he has said tonight, particularly in relation to the CEEFAX and ORACLE services. My own Department is, of course, responsible for the Post Office and for the well-being of British ​ manufacturing industry in general. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I tend to concentrate a little more on Viewdata and the set manufacturers, though I assure him that I shall attempt to cover the CEEFAX and the ORACLE aspects in my remarks as well.

Let me make it clear that the setting up of the Viewdata service and its running come within the operational powers of the Post Office, as defined by the Post Office Act 1969. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that my Department is kept very closely informed of progress.

As the hon. Gentleman says, the French authorities are developing their own teletext system, ANTIOPE, which, together with an associated system, is planned to provide services comparable with Viewdata and CEEFAX and ORACLE. I understand, as the hon. Gentleman says, that the technical specifications are rather different.

The hon. Gentleman has quite rightly referred to the Post Office’s embarkation on a public trial for the Viewdata service in June this year. Some 1,500 subscribers in London, Birmingham and Norwich will take part. Over £8 million has already been invested by the Post Office in the project, and in February it announced that it had brought forward by one year the start of a full Viewdata service to the first quarter of 1979. It is allocating a further £18 million for the service in 1979 alone, which is, I think, a reflection of the confidence that the Post Office has in its system.

By comparison, I understand that the French are not quite as advanced in setting up the commercial version of their ANTIOPE service.

On the matter of exports, Viewdata has already achieved a major break-through by the sale of Viewdata know-how to the German Post Office. I believe that this should provide an important bridgehead into establishing Viewdata with foreign telecommunications administrations.

There have also been a number of private demonstrations abroad, as well as seminars and public demonstrations at fairs and exhibitions, the latest of which have been in Zurich and Hong Kong. As a result, a number of countries, including European countries, have shown a great ​ deal of interest in purchasing the Viewdata software. In the United States, the New York offices of Insac Data Systems Limited, which is a subsidiary of the National Enterprise Board, already have an operational Viewdata terminal, which is linked to the computer centre in London, for demonstration purposes. The Post Office hopes that an agreement will be concluded in a few months’ time for Insac to market Viewdata in the United States of America, where there is already a considerable amount of interest being shown. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, therefore, that these opportunities are also holding great promise for British television set manufacturers and are very encouraging for them.

On the question of international discussions, to which the hon. Gentleman has quite rightly referred, the question of standards for Viewdata-type and CEEFAX and ORACLE systems is already under discussion. The Post Office has informed me that it and the German Post Office are already in touch with the French authorities for ongoing discussions on the matter of standards to see what common areas exist between the Viewdata and ANTIOPE systems.

On the multilateral level, the question of harmonising Viewdata-type services is being examined by a study group within the Conference of European PTT Administrations, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, of which the Post Office is an active member. The international telegraph and telephone consultative committee of the International Telecommunication Union is also turning its mind to this type of wired service, as well as the broadcast teletext services.

In fact, the ITU’s international radio consultative committee, on which the Home Office, BBC, IBA and the set manufacturers are represented, has been discussing the broadcast teletext services for some time and it is now coming together with the international telegraph and telephone consultative committee to take the discussion further.

Although that committee’s interest lies mainly in line transmission standards and alphabet standards, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Post Office will take a very active part in the work concerned. Certainly we in the Government will keep a ​ close eye on the progress of such international discussions to ensure that should any Government-to-Government intervention appear helpful, such opportunities will be grasped firmly.

Mr. Warren

I should like an assurance that the Minister understands that at the moment there are two authorities speaking in these international conferences on behalf of the United Kingdom, whereas the French speak with one unified voice. But they are trying to make the running with a system which is later than ours and which has major problems which they are glossing over.

Mr. Huckfield

I am very much aware of what the hon. Gentleman says about the activities of the French, and we shall take it to heart.

It would probably be helpful if I explained that the Post Office has made it clear that it will maintain the current Viewdata standards for the foreseeable future. At the same time it recognises that there may eventually be a need for a second generation of Viewdata service, at which time matters of compatability both for the television set manufacturers and the information providers will have to be considered.

The hon. Member mentioned that there was some concern among the manufacturers that there should be closer co-operation among the various parties concerned on the line to take in international discussions. The Post Office assures me that it is fully seized of the need for very close co-ordination on this. It points out that, through the Viewdata liaison group, which comprises representatives of the Post Office, set manufacturers and information providers, the British Radio Equipment Manufacturers Association study groups, which include Post Office, BBC and IBA officials as well as the set manufacturers and its bilateral discussions with the BBC and IBA, it strives to present the most convincing and co-ordinated case in the various international discussions.

The Home Office, which also takes part in international discussion on this, keeps closely in touch with the British parties involved. It does all it can to promote the British system vigorously in the international forums to which it is a party.

As for the Government’s attitude, the fact that the Post Office is prepared to ​ commit funds now to a public Viewdata service, and bring forward the start of the service by one year, demonstrates the Post Office’s confidence in Viewdata and in the ability of all concerned to market it effectively. The Post Office is not in need of, and has not asked for, financial support from the Government to run the Viewdata programme; but my officials are in discussion with it to see whether there are any ways in which the Government can help.

I noted what the hon. Member said about the industry’s desire to improve its promotional activity for Viewdata in Europe. I ask that representatives of the industry—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has contacts with it—make contact with my officials in the Department through the normal channels so that we may consider how the Government might lend support. I should perhaps mention that, through the micro-electronic support scheme, my Department is providing financial support totalling about £300,000 to two British companies involved in the manufacture of semiconductors to assist them in the development, production and marketing of custom-designed integrated circuits for Viewdata and broadcast Teletext. So there is some activity in that area. I am asking the hon. Gentleman to use his contacts with the representatives of the industry to ensure that we have more.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has authorised the broadcasting authorities to continue the development of their broadcast Teletext services. My right hon. Friend, while recognising that the development of Teletext raises a number of other important issues—particularly the implications for other communications media, particularly the newspaper industry—has made it very clear to the manufacturers that in his view the Teletext services are here to stay and has expressed his hope that that indication of the Government’s attitude will encourage the industry to provide the necessary equipments at a price which will bring them within the reach of the public at large. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that, if we are to get this system accepted widely in public, we have to concentrate particularly on bringing down the cost of the receiving sets.

I should like to deal with two points that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the first of which was the idea that the Government should demonstrate their support of the Viewdata service by placing substantial orders for receivers for their own use. The Post Office and the set manufacturers are already in touch with those responsible for the procurement of communications equipment for central Government, and introducing them to the potentialities of Viewdata in an office environment. Clearly, the Government’s own procurement decisions must be guided primarily by efficiency and economy in carrying out their functions, but I am sure that Viewdata is being evaluated with a sympathetic awareness of its national importance. I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to the attention of the right quarters.

The hon. Gentleman’s other point concerned doubts raised recently about the maintenance of standards by advertisers using Viewdata. The Post Office is conscious of this problem and is discussing with the Advertising Standards Authority ways in which it can be tackled. The Post Office has adopted a policy under which editorial control rests firmly with the information providers, and matters of advertising standards have to be considered against this background.
Finally, I once more thank the hon. Gentleman for raising what I think is a very significant British achievement. He sought the Government’s endorsement. I have tried to give him the Government’s endorsement tonight. I gladly, willingly and joyfully give it to him. I take this opportunity to reassure all concerned that it is the Government’s view that the standards presently being used for the Viewdata, CEEFAX and ORACLE services are effective and well proven. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government give their full backing and encouragement to the promotion, within Europe and elsewhere, of the international acceptance of these British standards.

We have a great British achievement. We can be proud of that achievement. We want to extend that achievement elsewhere.