IN the year 2000, if we should be so lucky, a don will arise, an academic Hercules, ready to tackle a definitive history on how cablevision came to Britain.

I do not know his name, but I can imagine what he should be like. He would not be a woman, because he would have to appreciate the macho determination with which different interests have been pursued. He would not be a young go-getter, with a grant from British Telecom and a career to make. He would be someone whose age, status and inclinations had lifted him somewhat above the struggle. Ideally, he should have a private income, and his colleagues would think him dotty and obsessed; a Betjeman among Betjeman; kind to children and wild flowers, and with some compassion for the human condition. He would read Trollope during his working hours and technical literature for fun. He would have some understanding of the corridors of power. He may even have strayed into government himself, by letting himself be appointed to a Select Committee on the Preservation of Roman Aqueducts, but he would not be so intoxicated by the prospect of unbridled influence that he would welcome further elevation, to the ranks, perhaps, of an Arts Council Advisory Committee.

He would know that his life's work lay elsewhere, in detailing with accuracy and an eye for scandal how Britain in the 1980s came to be encircled with thin beams of light, or not as the case may be. He would be capable of treating idealism and self-interest with an even hand; and when, in the year 2020, he would lay down his pen (having never yet acquired the mastery over a typewriter, let alone a word-processor), he would do so in the knowledge that his 21 million words have not been wasted, though no publisher exists to publish them or reader to read them, and his sole beneficiary is a bank deposit box in Croydon.

But his story will be one of Homeric proportions, relating how civilisations were or were not transformed, how human pride once more frustrated human hopes (or not), how man took over the mantle previously assigned to the gods. No other contemporary theme, not even the development of nuclear power, has quite so many implications for our future. Behind the development of cablevision are the battles of ideologies, of moralities, of commerce, of national and international interests; and one convenient image draws all these items together, that of light, pulsating light, which can either be clouded through a myriad of distorting threads of glass or beam through with a clear intelligence.

He will have to start by clearing away the confusions, not least those attaching themselves to the word cablevision. There is nothing revolutionary about cablevision, if we simply mean that a cable brings signals to a television set or another kind of receiver. The Report on Cable Systems, published by the Information Technology Advisory Panel in February 1982, revealed that more than 37% of the households in France with tele vision sets use a cable system. This simply means that there is one aerial for a block of flats or a small district, which has many cables leading from it to the individual television sets. This provides greatly improved reception than could be obtained through individual aerials attached (also by cable) to individual TV sets and also prevents a forest of masts on the roofs of flats. Nowadays, with the arrival of international television trans- mitted by satellite, such small-scale cablevision networks become particularly desirable, for the dish aerials required to pick up satellite signals are larger and more cumbersome than the thin aerials which can detect the local, stronger impulses from national or regional transmitters.

But cablevision in this sense is not an innovation, merely an extension of what has been in operation for years. The revolutionary aspect of modern cablevision lies in the nature of the cable itself, of which there are two main contenders-the coaxial cable or optical fibres. The coaxial cable consists of a central copper wire, surrounded by insulation, along which high frequency electromagnetic signals can be transmitted with less attenuation than would occur if the 'twisted pair' cables current ly used in the telephone system were used. Therefore, more information can be carried along one coaxial cable than can currently be transmitted down a 'twisted pair' cable. Our present television is restricted partly by the nature of the cables and also by the difficulty of picking up signals transmitted 'through the air". If coaxial cables were introduced into Britain, the range of channels available to our television sets would be increased from 4 to between 25 and 50.

This in itself opens up television to a wide variety of additional uses. It would be possible, for example, to extend the Open University pro- grammes, to have minority and local programmes, to provide ethnic and community services and, through satellite television, to receive programmes from other countries. It is also possible to extend even the range of 50 channels by connecting them to mixer units, whereby each channel can be opened up to the potentiality of another coaxial cable-offering 50 more channels. The owner of a television set which is connected to a national cablevision system using coaxial cables would have hundreds of channels at his disposal-at least, theoretically, although in practice there could be many limitations, not least by how the cables were installed, who owns them and how they were financed.

The 'optical fibre' system replaces the copper cable with hair-like threads of exceedingly pure glass, which relays light impulses with very little distortion or 'attenuation'. Its technology is more complicated than for the coaxial cable, but its potentiality is even greater. An optical fibre cablevision system would have a range in excess of the current telephone service. It opens up the possibility of two-way television systems; and the appendix to the Report on Cable Systems provides a brief, although mind- boggling, list of those services which such cablevision could provide- shopping by television, conducting all kinds of business operations from banking to signing contracts, from meter-reading, burglar and fire alarms, information services to opinion polling and betting.

Cablevision by optical fibres opens up the possibility of a communications system which eventually could encompass the world. It could link homes to all libraries. It could bring the Third World into suburban living rooms in London, and, in time, vice versa. Therein lies the first of many rubs, for could our political systems survive the onrush of such new knowledge? Could our commercial systems do so? Could our social structures, based as they are more on ignorance than knowledge, do so? Could our minds even begin to grasp the potentialities which technology has opened up? And is not the ingrained instinct of authority designed to repress such a diversity of information, much of which must threaten the mandate by which it rules?

After the publication of the Report on Cable Systems, with its general enthusiasm for cablevision, there has been a subtle gathering of the anti- cablevision forces. Outright opposition has been muted and most politicians, as well as those connected with television, seem to believe that sooner or later cablevision will come. The arguments have been about what kind of cablevision it will be, the nature of the controls and franchises; but when you bring all these arguments together, the result is so formidable a coalition of interests that the whole future of cablevision is thrown into doubt. That is one reason why the word cablevision is both useful and dangerously misleading, for it is possible to introduce a limited form of cablevision which would effectively frustrate its wider usage.

Our Trollopian don would have to pick his way through this complicated web of qualms, intrigues, and minor power battles; and perhaps in his research, he may add a footnote on our Liberal Arts Panel. Through the prescience of the chairman of the Media Committee, Francis Coleman, the Liberal Party was forced to consider cablevision in 1980, at a time when most people in Britain thought that cablevision, which had been the subject of several indifferently successful local experiments, was a lost cause. To most Liberals, the prospect of cablevision is very attractive. It offers the prospect of a truly pluralistic expression of views, and Liberals, who have suffered along with other minority parties, are convinced that the BBC, the IBA companies and most newspapers are biassed against them. It also opens out the possibility of community television, not dominated by national interests; and so, in our case, we were early converts to the cause and generally delighted when, two years later, Mrs. Thatcher's government seemed equally enthusiastic, establishing the Hunt Commission to gather reactions to cablevision, as described in the Technology Advisory Panel's Report.

Thus, in the summer of 1982, the arguments for and against cablevision, either in principle or in practice, have drifted. Individual submissions from various interested bodies to the Hunt Commission have been made public; and at the Edinburgh Festival, there was a television conference which dragged on for an interminable number of sessions, in which many hares were started and ogres paraded, none of which added much to our sum of knowledge about the subject.

Many bitchy remarks were passed about the state of television in the US. Is it as bad as all that? Buckets of cold water were thrown on those who dared suggest that cablevision was anything other than a new technological toy. At this conference, however, it was possible to detect three main lines of opposition to cablevision, on the grounds of cost, cultural standards and social control. They have to be considered separately, although they are, in fact, interrelated.

In the Report on Cable Systems, the cost of providing cablevision to half the households in Britain was estimated at £2,500 million. It therefore represents a very large investment by government or by a consortium of business interests. This figure is certainly too low. A system based upon coaxial cable would cost nearly twice this amount, while an optical fibre system would be more expensive still.

Who would be able and ready to spend this amount of money, and what would they require in return? The Liberals in their party manifesto insist that British Telecom should instal the cable, with financing from government, and that individual cablevision stations, together with individual television users, should rent the use of the cable. The analogy would be with the telephone service which similarly brought great benefits from a high outlay of capital.

But could any government, particularly one of a Thatcherite persuasion, undertake such a scheme at a time of economic recession. The answer partly lies in what is meant by cablevision. If we believe that it is just an extension of the existing television service, then the cost is certainly high; and the weakness of the Report on Cable Systems is that it envisages that the introduction of cablevision should be 'entertainments-led'. 'Because the initial attraction of cable systems centres on new channels for broadcast entertainment, news, sport, etc., the implications for current and future broadcasting services have to be considered." (Summary: paragraph 5.)

An 'entertainments-led' cablevision programme would undoubtedly lead to low-cost solutions-the choice of coaxial cable, rather than optical fibres; the wiring of towns and cities, but not country areas; the division of the rich, who can afford to pay high rentals, from the poor, who cannot: and other complications. This aspect of the Report has given the critics of cablevision an open target. Cablevision, they argue, is a dilettante idea, socially divisive and completely out of tune with the true needs of our society. Their views have been reinforced by the fact that the debate about cablevision has so far been dominated by the television companies, not least the BBC.

But the television companies are not the most impartial of witnesses. Certain commercial companies, such as Granada, have investments already in cablevision; and advocate the liberalisation of all restrictions on television, currently imposed by the Home Office. Their argument is that cablevision should be financed by a mixture of methods, including PAY TV, subscription schemes, advertising and the like. The BBC, how- ever, sees its position in television threatened by cablevision. Hence, there have been dire warnings about the lowering of television standards, about the flood of pornography and cheap cowboy movies, about the domination of British cablevision from foreign companies (notably the United States) and about the loss of social cohesion which the national services provide. How can political balance' be maintained in free-for-all cable- vision?

Granada would take as its image that of the public library. You are not forced to maintain 'political balance' in a library. You do not tell each customer who borrows a Marxist book that he or she should borrow a capitalist book as well. The customer has the freedom of choice. The BBC's image is that of the Tower of Babel, where the babbling of many tongues leads to social anarchy.

Both views are the product of vested interests, which is not to suggest that they are wrong, but that they are partial. The full potential of cablevision will only be recognised if it is not thought to be 'entertainments-led’. The consequences for business communication, information services and all the other uses must be brought into the discussions. This would inevitably lead to the "higher cost' solution, using optical fibres, wiring the villages and country areas as well as the towns and subsidising initially the development programme to keep the cost to the consumer at a low level.

But what could tempt a Thatcher government into the provision of such subsidies, particularly when it is so determined that British Telecom should be a private company? The answer could lie in the recession. Britain is a world leader in optical fibre research. Any decision by the British government to undertake optical fibre cablevision would be create a major new industry for this country, one with great potential for exports. If Michael Foot at the Labour Party Conference so lightly proposes doubling the output of steel in Britain, without much consideration as to where this steel should be sold, then the opportunity is offered to Mrs. Thatcher to retort that bolstering up uneconomic industries by subsidy is not a politically responsible act. Investing in a growth industry like cable- vision, however, certainly would be.

But can any political party with delusions of grandeur seriously contemplate a truly free cablevision system? The BBC may be at 'arm's length' from government, but only if it is considered to be acting 'responsibly'. During the Falklands crisis, a Panorama programme dared to be mildly critical of the government's position. The furore lasted for months. Under cablevision, it would be very difficult to prevent programmes infinitely more hostile to the government from being aired. Liberals and libertarians would see this as a great gain in freedom of expression. If cablevision were simply a national issue, their views might well win the day. But cablevision is also international, through satellites. In times not just of war, but also of intense commercial competition, a free cable- vision service in Britain might well operate against what some consider to be the national interest.

If every country had a free cablevision service - free, that is, from political or commercial interference - the effect would surely be to increase international understanding and perhaps to transform standards of international behaviour. But if only one country. or a small group of countries, had free cablevision, a situation might arise, analogous to that envisaged through unilateral disarmament. Other countries might follow our moral example, but if they don't, we could be left defenceless in the propaganda battle.

Very few politicians in Britain seem prepared to contemplate an unregulated cablevision system; and the methods of regulation could amount to a censorship, either direct or indirect, more severe than that currently practiced in Britain because the stakes are higher. Nor is political censor- ship the only threat. If cablevision comes to provide the main information services to the country, then who will control the information? The government? Private companies? Or can some mysterious new quango be invented to guarantee freedom of information? Can we afford to be libertarian?

I believe that we can and should; but I am not sanguine as to whether we will. Indeed, I suspect that our Trollopian don will be forced to tell a dismal story that we, having been offered light, chose to see through a glass darkly, or only coaxial cable. We may not be allowed to read that story at all, for, by the year 2020, new industries, new governments, new social systems will be threatened by it.