HL Deb 01 December 1953 vol 184 cc783-7

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord and the House for interrupting the proceedings, but it is important that I should make this statement at the same time as it is made in America and Canada. Your Lordships will be glad to know that I have just signed an Agreement with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, the Canadian Overseas Telecommunication Corporation and the Eastern Telephone and Telegraph Company of Canada for the provision of the first Transatlantic telephone cable. The Agreement will be presented to Parliament and will be subject to approval in another place.

This scheme has been talked of for years and has become possible only as a result of long and patient research, both in the famous Bell Telephone Laboratories of America and also here, at Dollis Hill, in London. Quite briefly, the new cable system is a marriage of modern radio and cable techniques, and the main problem has been to design repeaters (which boost the speech currents) of sufficient strength and reliability to work below two miles or so of ocean. After all, with a cable at that depth, once it is down at the bottom of the ocean, the longer we can leave it there the better. In America, development work on repeaters of this kind culminated in 1950 in the laying of two repeatered cables between Havana and Key West. In this country we have concentrated our energies on repeaters suitable for the medium depths round our coasts and between the United Kingdom and the Continent. Since 1943, we have installed nineteen such repeaters. As a result of all this work, we have between us succeeded in planning by far the longest submarine telephone cable there has ever been. So far, no cable has contained more than four repeaters, and no working repeater has been laid at a depth of more than one mile.

The new cable will completely transform telecommunications between this country and the North American Continent. In place of the existing twelve radio-telephone circuits to the United States and two to Canada, unreliable and dependent as they are on the vagaries of atmospheric conditions, we shall have high-grade and reliable circuits, about twenty-nine to the United States and six to Canada, as well as a number of telegraph circuits to Canada. Further technical development may well increase the number of circuits. I should perhaps explain here that a circuit means capacity for one conversation, so that twenty-nine circuits means capacity for twenty-nine conversations simultaneously. Of very great importance also, the new cable will help us to give much better telephone and telegraph services to Australia and New Zealand via Vancouver. This will mean far less interference than with our present radio connections.

The total cost to all parties concerned will be about £12.5 million, and the job will take about three years to complete. The submarine cable will be laid by H.M.T.S. "Monarch," the largest cable ship in the world, which is being specially adapted for this purpose. I am sure your Lordships will wish me to pay a very special tribute to the engineers on both sides of the Atlantic. Thanks to their persistence and skill, something which has been a vision for a quarter of a century has become a reality and has made possible this tremendous advance in the history of communications. In saying this, may I also add a further tribute to their spirit of energy and co-operation. Never at any moment have we had the feeling that the Bell Laboratories were keeping anything back, and I hope and believe that they have felt the same about us. Lengthy negotiation with the Americans and Canadians on the details of what is necessarily a long and complicated Agreement has been to me and my representatives a very pleasant and happy experience.


My Lords, whilst, of course, I hope that the anticipations of the noble Earl will be fulfilled, is he not a little rash in assuming that all the difficulties which will be met with in practice have already been surmounted? When it comes to putting schemes into operation, one often finds "snags" arising. I want merely to ask this question. The noble Earl says that The total cost to all parties concerned will be about £12.5 million. I should like to ask: Who are the "parties concerned" and in what proportion will the cost be shared between them?


I referred in my statement to "all parties concerned." More accurately, the scheme is between the Americans, the Canadians and this country. Actually, the United States will carry 50 per cent. of the cost and the Commonwealth will carry the other 50 per cent. Forty-one per cent. of the cost will fall on this country and 9 per cent. on the Canadians. The whole of our contribution to the capital cost will, in fact, be in kind and will not, therefore, involve us in dollars. It will be divided between the cost of the cable and the contribution of the "Monarch" to the laying of the cable.


The percentages, then, are 50, 41 and 9?




My Lords, if the difficulties to which my noble and learned friend referred do not eventuate, this Agreement may well mark an epoch-making advance in communications between this country and the North American Continent. A cable of this kind was a dream when I was at the Post Office in 1945. We hope that the dream is flow coming true, and I am delighted that this should be happening during the time that the noble Earl Lord De La Warr, is in charge of the Post Office. As the noble Earl has pointed out, it has taken many years of hard work by devoted public servants at the Post Office to make this Agreement possible, and I hope that the noble Earl will convey the thanks and congratulations of noble Lords in all parts of this House to the research scientists at Dollis Hill, the Post Office engineers and others who have been concerned—


And the Bell Laboratories.


And the Bell Laboratories. What I should like is to join in the congratulations which have been offered particularly to those who are responsible for our share of the work. I know from experience that many scientists at Dollis Hill have been concerned and, of course, a very large number of Post Office engineers. I hope the noble Earl will convey our thanks to all on his staff who have contributed to the reaching of this Agreement.


I thank the noble Earl very much.


My Lords, I know nothing about the technique of this matter, and therefore cannot say whether or not there will be difficulties. But, speaking as a Press man, it is clear that this marks an important stage in the increase of telephone communications across the Atlantic. Anyone who has been concerned with the Press knows how, whenever there is a radio disturbance, cable communications are utterly inadequate, and confusion results. I am quite sure that the Press will hear this news from the Postmaster General with great pleasure. I think it is also a very great thing that this improvement will affect what is to some extent another bottleneck—namely, the communications between this country and Australasia.

I am quite sure that your Lordships did not fail to notice that the last paragraph of the Postmaster General's statement was not entirely irrelevant to the debate which follows. This important process has come about by the voluntary exchange of information across the Atlantic. I think it may also perhaps be true to say that what obtains between Governments obtains between private industry. Information will flow more freely into, as well as out of, the country if it is voluntarily rather than compulsorily disclosed. I make that comment because I do not propose to take any further part in the debate on the Inventions and Designs Bill. I rose really in order to congratulate the Postmaster General on what will certainly be a landmark in the development of communications.


Can the noble Earl say whether this new cable is likely to lead to cheaper telephone charges across the Atlantic, and to Australia?


I am afraid that I cannot say anything about charges at the moment. At the moment our charges from Great Britain to America are very much cheaper than the charges the other way. Those figures have to be negotiated between us. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Layton, for his reception of this scheme, and also the noble Earl, Lord Listowel—he has always remained a firm friend of the Post Office. As I believe most of us do when we leave the Post Office, he has left happy memories among the staff, who I am sure will receive his message of congratulation with very real pleasure.