ACLARA

Were it not for the drizzling mist, the view across Brussels from the top floor of the Martini Tower would have been spectacular. This I knew from my short stay here in the 1960s – not in the Tower, but in the hotel on the other side of the square. It had been a school trip, staying overnight in Brussels on the way to Switzerland. My friends were standing on the window ledge, smoking, fifteen floors above street level. Vertigo kept me in the room. I remembered the red and blue glow of the Martini sign. Strange how your mind tends to drift midway through a speech by an EU Commissioner. The person next to me was writing in a loose-leaf file. Faux enthusiasm, or maybe he’d found something noteworthy in the self-congratulatory retrospective on the Commission’s Framework 2. They were called Frameworks rather than Research Programs, which is what they were; this was the launch of the third one. Or, at least a part of Framework 3, in which the projects had been grouped together and referred to as RACE. Everyone seemed to know what the four letters stood for so I was too embarrassed to ask. The aim of RACE was, and no doubt the young man next to me wrote this down, ‘To make a major contribution to the introduction of Integrated Broadband Communications’, already being referred to as IBC. The official language of the RACE project was Acronym.

Up until 1990, Digithurst avoided publicly funded projects, as we didn’t regard them as an efficient way to expand the business. Not because we were avid free market advocates, we just never had time for the paperwork and didn’t need the money. We did, indirectly, benefit from research grants; at least 25% of MicroScale systems were bought with money the tax man collected and gave to research establishments. Also, taking a broader view, our programmers and engineers had been educated at the public’s expense and it was the government that funded Inmos’s development of the Transputer.

The problem with government grants, from Digithurst’s perspective, came down to ‘skin in the game’ – a rather unpleasant term venture capitalists use to describe a person’s commitment, usually financial, to a project. By the way, we had never used venture funding, either. We were always aware that more than our reputation was at stake if an R&D project failed. It may have made for a fraught working environment, but things got done and, most of the time, they got done quickly and correctly. We knew universities and government R&D establishments didn’t work like that.

A year earlier, the briefest read through of the ACLARA project plan would have told us ‘Advanced Communications for Local Authorities in Rural Areas’ wasn’t for us. But, without a network, our online local newspaper would be little more than a sophisticated desktop presentation. With a network, it would become a fully functioning electronic publication. So, when two researchers from the University of Bremen, which marketed itself as BIBA, arrived in our office saying it needed an industrial partner for ACLARA, the project looked a good fit. With luck, it could act as both a testbed for PictureBook and Reuters’ style funding for the launch of a vertical application. At last, a chance to replace video hairstyling with electronic news publishing. ACLARA might also enable us to reinforce our presence in Europe and mitigate the loss of our hardware market to Asian manufacturers. The only cloud on the horizon was Framework 3 itself.

The EU Commission was already fending off accusations that it was wasting money on misguided R&D projects. Framework 3 was regarded at best wasteful and, at worst, rife with corruption. Money was given to an Italian telecoms company, which only existed on paper, to fund a project that only existed in someone’s imagination. Eventually, the Commission would be forced to resign en masse; however, by then the damage to Europe’s telecoms sector had been done. Reform came too late, prevented by vested interests of national telecommunications providers, consultants and large IT companies. Over the next five years, Europe’s telecoms market became so distorted and disjointed that US companies were able to force their version of the Internet in through the gaps. And, to set the stage for this catastrophe, the Commission provided a short demonstration of its incompetence.

The speech ended, but the cheerleading continued. A confused thirty minutes, during which we learnt RACE would protect Europe’s text corpora and enable European citizens to manufacture their own breakfast cereal using 3D printers. This was the vision of a rotund gentleman I later discovered was called The Man with Two Raincoats. Halfway through, the enthusiastic scribbler next to me whispered, ‘How do we do this?’ He was pointing to the next item on the agenda: ‘A 15-minute break then meet again in the Palace Hotel on the other side of Place Rogier – see map’. Next to this, calculations, not notes as I had originally thought: time taken to transport 500 people down a 22-storey building using two lifts, each carrying fifteen people with a return journey time of five minutes. Assuming everyone else in the Martini Tower stopped using the lifts, we were still expected to fit a 41.66 minute journey into a 15-minute break. Well spotted, I thought, by someone who obviously benefited from a Dutch university education.

We left early and avoided the scrum in the lobby and the queue down the stairs, sitting in a café watching our colleagues sprint across Place Rogier. The postgraduate from Holland drank the last of his coffee. ‘That’s why they call it RACE,’ he said. Today we are accessing the Internet over a combination of fibre and tin cans connected by copper wire – thanks, in part, to the people who organised that meeting at the top of Martini Tower on that dull damp day in 1990.

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RACE was based on the concept of ‘broadband islands’ and the project ACLARA, like other trials in the programme, were designed as a proof of this concept. The islands were to be made up of collections of ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) – sorry, there aren’t too many more of these acronyms – phone lines carrying voice, data and video. Connecting these islands were to be larger, high-capacity connections (referred to as pipes) using a communication protocol called ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode). Of greater interest than the protocols was the topology of the network, which made a good fit with how the EU Commission saw the future governance of Europe. Communities like those where the ACLARA trials were to be held would use ISDN-based services, such as video conferencing and networked financial applications, on their broadband island. The high-capacity links connecting these islands would transmit data to central government. The central government of each state would make statistics based on the data they collected available to the EU Commission, who would use them for budgeting and infrastructure planning. This was, pardon the pun, a pipe dream; however, it suited the aspirations of the Commission and served the interests of Europe’s national telecom providers and IT companies.

Two rural communities had been selected for the trial: Ganderkesee in Germany and Chȃteau du Loir in France. Each was to have their town halls and other centres of administration equipped with ISDN-linked computer systems, including video conferencing to support remote working. Researchers from BIBA would assess the socio-economic impact of the new technology. This being the EU Commission, it had already been decided what form the impact would take. As with all RACE projects, there was a section at the end of the ACLARA project plan entitled ‘Expected Results’; funding was heavily dependent on staying on-message when filling in this box.

Within RACE there was, thanks to the universal use of email and CompuServe bulletin boards, a constant crosslinking of researchers. This created a meshwork of personnel operating outside of the programme’s hierarchical management structure. For some reason, EU project managers were blind to, or chose to ignore, this new flexible way of working when designing projects and trials. This betrayed an elitism that permeated the whole programme; the electronically created freedom its researchers enjoyed was not for the office workers of Ganderkesee or Chȃteau du Loir.

The Commission believed standardising working practices across Europe would give the continent a competitive edge over the US and Asia. However, telecoms companies saw using broadband islands as a way of forcing expensive, and largely unnecessary, ISDN technology on local authorities. Also, the last thing Deutsche Telecom and France Telecom wanted was subscribers playing with dial-up modems and communicating with each other using CompuServe. Fighting this battle on the telecom companies’ behalf was an army of consultants. These attached themselves to projects like political commissars, reporting any digressions, warning their masters of anything that might force them to cannibalise their revenue.

The EU Commission’s communication strategy was heavily influenced by Martin Bangemann, Commissioner for the Internal Market and Industrial Affairs. Large IT companies liked Bangemann’s vision of Europe-wide standards. The idea that one day it wouldn’t be possible to order even a paperclip without initiating an EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) transaction obviously appealed to companies that marketed EDI solutions. The technology, which was complex and expensive to deploy, would rid the market of all those tiny IT start-ups that threatened to drag companies such as IBM into the red.

So, we began ACLARA with a fair degree of scepticism and a few obviously misplaced preconceptions about how an R&D project should be run. A large sum of money appeared in the bank account we set up for the project – in fact, most of the contracted cost. We contacted all the participants and asked them to send invoices when they completed the work. Wrong, apparently; everyone got paid in full, up front. The money went out and, with it, was gone the principal means of controlling the project ...

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... (An extract from The Ghost in the Labyrinth by Peter Kruger)


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