Tomorrow never comes for BT

Some things always happen tomorrow. BT's break-up should not be one of these

Some ideas are so good they keep on coming back. Take fuel cells, those perennial power plants. Ever since they helped Apollo to the Moon, they've been threatening to replace batteries with a more convenient, longer lasting and beefier portable source of volts. Every eighteen months, a company shows up with a prototype for consumer use and a promise that 'next year' it'll be in production. But if you're not Buzz Aldrin, you'll still be using boring old rechargeables.

Holographic storage is another. Today, we report on not one company but an entire consortium set up to produce and promote this particular strand of the eternal future. The HVD (Holographic Video Disc) Alliance says that its 3D optical system will lead to 1TB removable storage and could replace the DVD entirely. This particular tradition dates back to at least the early 90s, when long-forgotten companies such as Tamarack Storage Devices promised unfeasibly large holographic memories. "We're on the verge of revolutionizing information-storage technology," said director of marketing David Misunas. "Users will finally have access to hundreds of gigabytes of storage that is portable, fast, and very inexpensive," said John Stockton, Tamarack's chief executive. That was 1994. Some verge.

There's one strand of never-quite-there futurology that is peculiarly British: the break-up of BT. In fact, BT was supposed to have been born broken up, but when the government examined the books at the beginning of the 80s it found that decades of state ownership had resulted in a most peculiar animal quite unsuited for disection. However, strong regulation was put in place to prevent abuse of its de facto monopoly and allow effective competition.

Twenty years and one change of regulator on, and BT is still being strongly regulated – an admission of failure. Its de facto monopoly is doing nicely, thanks very much, so much so that the threat of dismemberment is once again being raised. BT's survival has come at a price: in 1982, it was hoped that the company could turn into an international giant of IT capable of taking on IBM. No such dreams exist today: the company is happy to do whatever it takes to keep its cosy grip on the nation's bandwidth, and the regulator is happy to let it. More vigour from Ofcom is direly needed to break this particular historical repeat cycle.

As for Tamarack, it eventually got bought for its intellectual property by a company called Manhattan Scientifics -- which is now demonstrating prototype fuel cells that 'will be soon' commercially viable. Perhaps it should consider the telecoms business.

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