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Jane Wakefield: Waiting for the WAP train

The US turns green with envy at our ability to put the Net on our phones -- but we can't match their cheap calls

Anyone who has sat on a tube platform waiting for a Circle Line train to show up will know the feeling -- trains come and go but none of them are for you. In the same way, the government is worried that the UK is missing the Internet train and is determined that the next one out of the station will be theirs.

And the destination of the front of that train is WAP, which is being heralded by the e-minister Patricia Hewitt as the greatest thing since -- well, wires, I suppose. She has just returned from a big adventure in America, visiting high-tech firms on the East Coast and meeting important people such as Nicholas Negroponte and Tim Berners-Lee.

And apparently, we have finally found something that we do better than the Yanks as, according to Hewitt, the US turns green with envy at our ability to put the Net on our phones. Which makes me want to rush out wrapped in a Union Jack and buy a bulldog.

Whether WAP will prove to be the replacement for PCs as Hewitt claims is not at all certain. Mobile phones have become as popular as sweets and no self-respecting grandmother or five-year-old would be seen without one. Just as inexorably on the rise, unfortunately, is the tide of banal conversations being held on crowded trains. "I'm on the train" must finally have taken over from "Hello" as the most common phrase used on the phone.

But will we really be booking cinema tickets, reading news and buying CDs on our phones? If we are going to kick-start the e-commerce revolution from ever-shrinking devices, we are going to need very good eyesight and tiny fingers. Plus the patience of a saint, if the number of times standard mobile phones get cut off is anything to go by.

The lesson Hewitt should have learnt in the US is the importance of a cheap phone call. Over there, Internet calls have always been unmetered, with users paying about £15 a month, all-in. If the e-minister had come back and said: "What we really need to do is get rid of BT's monopoly today and have really cheap off-peak access," the train the government wants to be on would be on time, fast and full of happy people.

The fact that the government has, albeit belatedly, woken up to the power of the Web deserves some praise as well as criticism. And the UK -- Blair and Hewitt especially -- must take a good deal of the credit for spreading the 'Net is good' message to the rest of Europe. The head honchos of Europe, including our own PM, met in Lisbon at the end of the week to discuss the best way to make Europe as good at e-commerce as the US. The Internet, they agreed, was critical to the economic wellbeing of the EU and would change traditional economics in the same way that elastic transformed the pants industry.

So the prime ministers and heads of state signed up to an EC directive to speed up local loop unbundling -- in which dominant European telcos give new operators the keys to their exchanges -- bringing it forward to December of this year. Opening up the telecommunications market is seen as key to driving competition and, it is hoped, driving prices down. And the fact that the Council of Europe has finally acknowledged this is an important breakthrough.

But I doubt there will be a great deal of substance behind the rhetoric and I suspect UK unbundling will remain at its July 2001 deadline. BT will hang on for dear life to that timetable (after all, it was unhappy about having to unbundle at all) and I don't really see how government will change it. The piece of paper signed by Blair will, I'm afraid, prove to be as useful as the one waved by Neville Chamberlain on returning from a German visit to his favourite fascist.

Never mind, though, France Telecom is allegedly much worse than BT, with a regulator even weaker than Oftel. We might not be as good as the Yanks but we are better than the French -- and that must count for something.

As well as spreading the word of the Internet to the far-flung corners of Europe, the UK government is also trying to get the message across in its own corridors of power and Whitehall is proving nearly as deaf as BT when it comes to doing things electronically.

At its Web awards on Monday, civil servants rebelled against the plethora of government e-initiatives, calling for more money rather than more memos. One official also revealed that ministers might well have their own agendas when it comes to wiring Westminster. Asked what they would most like to see on their departments' Web sites, most said -- their own speeches. Which, I have to confess, I find rather touching.

Guy Kewney predicts WAP rage. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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