Broadband and Society: International Perspectives and Research Challenges

Broadband and Society is a symposium addressing some of the issues surrounding the National Broadband Network as it will be implemented in Australia. The session opened with a number of short talks: I’ll put my initial notes up here, and if anyone has questions I’ll raise them during the discussion session.

Jim Wyatt – Department of Commerce, WA State Government

There are a number  key shifts, many of which are social. For example, the shift from structured learning environments to less-structured environments. Not all of the shifts enabled by the NBN will be about the Internet – there’ll also be the creation of discrete and specific networks that address particular uses (eg. virtual in-home healthcare.)

Today broadband is about ‘pulling’ information from the Internet, but in the future it might be more about ‘push’ services, eg. doctors providing consulting services. This will be built on five key technologies: videoconferencing/telepresence, IPTV, software as a service (remote management and automated control), large file transfer, store and retrieve data repository).

It will also mean moving beyond online content, looking towards virtual simulation, augmented reality – much of this is available now through the Internet, but this will be more rich and useful with increased data flow.

Over 70% of Australia’s economy is in the service sector – the NBN offers a chance to shift this online. We could also look at a shift towards local and regional, rather than global, markets.

Associate Professor Sora Park, Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra

Park is trying to understand what the gap might be in implementing broadband policies. She argues that we need to have a socially-driven agenda for broadband implementation, rather than one that is technology-driven. She has extensive experience in Korea, which is a lead market – doing well on most measures except the World Economic Forum’s Networked Readiness Index, on which it is ranked tenth (this is high, but low compared to other indicators for Korea).

Korean’s use of the Internet is high, but active participation is low – people tend to consume, but not create, online media. This is an important gap.

High access in Korea is due to the aggressive government policy – making sure that everyone was connected. But now we have a new framework for policy development, which means shifting from emphasising ‘access’ to emphasising ‘usage’.

Since 2004 the Korean government has been measuring the digital divide, looking at access, skills, and usage. The digital divide, according to this index, has been narrowing. Qualitative perception of the Internet’s usefulness, however, differs significantly across groups within society, even if the gap in actual usage is shrinking.

There’s a difference between availability of infrastructure, adoption, and usage.

A key distinction is between connectivity and connectedness. Connectivity is about infrastructure. Connectedness is more about attitude, and actual use of technology.

Gaps in existing discourse about broadband policies include the need for more discussion of broadband acceptance, outcomes of variance in usage, digital fluency, literacy, and competency.

For the future, we need to look at the participatory gap that follows connectivity, and ways to lessen this.

Brad Wynter – Using broadband to enhance community, City of Whittlesea

The City of Whittlesea Council sees broadband as one potential tool to deliver on its mission statement. The City is currently experiencing huge growth in this area at the moment, which creates unique challenges and opportunities. All of this development is in ‘greenfield’ areas, which means a shift from farming land to urban areas. A key challenge, therefore, is building and strengthening community. There are also a number of emerging social issues, many of which are related to the lack of service (including transport) infrastructure and the relative dearth of community strength.

The council is attempting to actively build access to networks that make be helpful in addressing these issues. They now require developers to put in infrastructure to allow connectivity later. The council is also trying to help with demand aggregation, for example by finding disadvantaged communities and advocating on their behalf for service providers.

Broadband may be used as a tool for dealing with emerging social issues. For example, partnerships with libraries that allow people to work remotely at libraries, can decrease the isolation experienced by non-working partners, who might otherwise be ‘trapped’ in developments with little in the way of transport.

The key questions, then, are: how can we use the NBN to build healthier communities? How can we use it to address social issues? What opportunities are there to measure the benefits of these programs?

Professor Catherine Middleton, Canada Research Chair in Communication Technologies in the Information Society, Ryerson University, Canada

Three important things we’ve learned about broadband:

1) There is a digital divide: it’s getting smaller, but it still exists. There will also be some age-related digital divide: the technologies which we know how to use now may not be as useful or relevant in the future.

2) Public investment in broadband is motivated by development of key services. There are important differences between the rhetoric, here, and the reality. Most people use the Internet for entertainment, not to access services.

3) Broadband is more than the Internet. Broadband will allow for access to a number of other services, but it’s not yet clear how this will happen.

This raises a number of research questions. For example, we could look at ways in which we can allow people to access key services without needing to use the medium of a PC/laptop (as in the case of in-house health services): the issue then is about access to broadband, rather than access to the Internet, which involves a different set of skills, networks, and services.

Professor Matthew Allen, Department of Internet Studies, Curtin University

One of the key drivers for early Internet connectivity was the idea that it would be useful for children to do better at school. This is not necessarily continuing to drive increased Internet access. There are also a number of important changes in how Australians are accessing the Internet, such as a shift away from dial-up and towards mobile devices (including plug-in devices). Most data traffic is still, however, through fixed-line services. There’s also been a shift towards faster fixed-line connections.

The rise in mobile connections does, for some, reflect a lack of access to other services, but for many consumers mobile and fixed-line services are complementary. The former allows for flexibility in access, while the latter allows for increased data transfer and speed. Understanding the relationship between these different modes of access/connection is important; we need to understand the different places where we want to access information, the different uses we have for the Internet, and the different business models shaping service provision.

Research shows that in Australia and the US we’re not, currently, seeing a levelling-off of Internet use: as people connect (and the more data they share, and the faster their connection is), they want to connect more.

If we look at people’s understandings of what the Internet helps them to achieve, they see it as instrumental in achieving key goals (such as accessing knowledge and allowing them to make good decisions). The more likely you, as an Internet user, are to see the Internet as a tool for mediating your presentation of identity, the more likely you are to see it as serving other needs (like finding information and collaborating with others). Internet use also interacts with our experience of home: the ways in which we perceive our connection between home and the outside world.

As we research the role of broadband in society, we need to look at multiple forms of connection (and how these relate to our underlying sense of ‘connectedness’) and the ways in which connectivity changes over time (as we go through different life stages and circumstances).

Professor Lelia Green, School of Communications and Contemporary Arts, Edith Cowan University

While we tend to emphasise service provision, we also need to look at demand. What we see as being the benefits of the NBN won’t actually be seen until around 2020. There’ll always be some kind of guide, because young people go out of their way to fashion a world that’s out of the reach of older people’s involvement and scrutiny. This makes understanding young people’s use of the Internet particularly useful and interesting.

Recent research in Australia demonstrated that 46% of young people (9 – 16 years old) had gone online using a mobile device, which was above figures from Europe. Australian children were the most stressed of all of the children in the 26-nation study carried out by Green et al. Many children had seen something online that unsettled them: which they were bothered by, or felt that they shouldn’t have seen, or which had a long-term effect on them. Australian children were the second most stressed out of the nations looked at about other people’s use of their data online. They were also quite stressed about online bullying, seeing sexual images online (and offline), and about disturbing user-generated content (such as hate sites and pro-anorexia sites).

We spend a lot of time talking about filters and classification systems, but Green is concerned that in looking at things which can be addressed by policy, we’re not looking enough at things which can be addressed by social interaction among peer groups. The Internet shifts many of the social interactions and dynamics which previously could be left in the classroom online, making it more difficult for students to get away from them. We need to focus more on teaching children how to show respect for each other online.

Associate Professor Chun Liu, School of Economics and Management, Southwest Jiaotong University, China

Internet penetration in China is now at around 35% of households, with most of these connections now being over broadband. There are a number of characteristics of the Chinese model of broadband development: China’s model is marked by inter-ministerial competition, which means that there are a number of internal political negotiations which need to take place. However, decision-making around telecommunications is also strongly shaped by top-down procedures.

The Chinese government has had an ambitious goal in place to connect all villages by 2020. While there is this clear overarching strategy, it’s easy to get rapid movement in a policy area. However, as the government’s attention shifts, the initial rapid growth may become unsustainable.

Regulation and ownership of the telecommunications infrastructure may also become problematic, particularly because of the division between television and telephone services and the ‘siloed’ regulation style.

One of the key areas for ongoing research is the impact of social media. Even with strict censorship, microblogging is an important area: there are more than 200 million registered microbloggers on the Chinese version of Twitter. Secondly, it’s useful to look at the existence of a social media divide: who is using which services, and why, and does it matter? Thirdly, it’s important to build an understanding of the Chinese mobile broadband strategy: the Chinese government has adopted a relatively balanced approach to regulation, but this may not be enough to build access. Finally, we need to find out what the ‘killer application’ is for broadband: it may well be that people are most motivated to shift to the optical fibre network so that they can play games or watch movies online.

Mr Mal Bryce, E-commerce pioneer and Visiting Fellow at Curtin University

Bandwidth has become important for Australian telecommunications only in the last decade or so. In 1997-1998 in Australia the volume of data transmitted surpassed the volume of voice traffic for the first time. The NBN will be a transformatory infrastructure. Data traffic over Telstra networks doubled in 2011, and is going to keep increasing. Bryce predicts that significant changes will really begin once we reach 30% penetration of broadband. The Internet makes a serious contribution to the Australian economy: about $50bn in 2010, which exceeds the contribution from iron ore.

The digital divide is between nations, but its also between cities and regions, and even between post codes. Access to the Internet is, in some places, being seen as a human right.

There are a number of key priorities for research, including the future of learning, cyber security, productivity on the digital economy. With regard to learning, Heppell’s hierarchy (hardware, software, data, searching, storage, socializing) refers to key stages in the roll-out of digital infrastructure and is useful. Heppell argues that we will, in the future, see a fundamental shift in learning: we have to bury a hundred-year-old structure of learning (Bryce recommends reading Testra’s recent White Paper on Education). When it comes to cyber security, Bryce sees the online environment as allowing a whole new range of criminal activities. He argues that it’s important not to overlook national, corporate, and environmental security in our enthusiasm for Broadband. In terms of productivity, Australian productivity is slipping behind, and we need more research in this area.

Australia missed out on the hardware revolution, and has done little to contribute to the software revolution. We need to see the development of the NBN as our window of opportunity. Australia is very well, given the state of the global economy, and investing some of this in the NBN infrastructure could be very helpful. We also need to look at a multi-disciplinary twenty-year longitudinal study to track the impact of the Internet (and broadband).

4 thoughts on “Broadband and Society: International Perspectives and Research Challenges

  1. Hey Sky,

    Great notes.

    If you see this in time, a two-part question: (a) is a push to cloud-based computing, media and storage inevitably encouraged and almost determinstically promoted by the NBN; and (b) is that shift necessarily a good thing, especially in terms of the cost of maintaining the hardware of the cloud (ie ecological impact, esp manufacturing and electricity costs)?


    1. Hi Tama,

      I got a couple of replies to your question:

      Jim Wyatt said: the NBN is an access-based network. To ask whether it will be a motivator for cloud-based environments is a problem, because the NBN is not going to provide the benefits for cloud-based computing: it’s an infrastructure which allows access to other networks. Key issues or the growth of cloud computing in Australia (and Australian consumer adoption of cloud technologies) will include the costs of interconnection and the costs/ease of communicating internationally. That will be more relevant, in terms of the cloud, than the NBN itself.

      Matt Allen said: Tama’s using the NBN in quite a loose way. There’s a political tension in the development of ultra-fast broadband, because it relocates points of production. So I think that maybe the alternative future which we’re not considering is a whole heap of microservers: decentralised production and control, a cloud which is distributed. But the way in which things currently work, with large corporations being the basis of most of ‘the cloud’ this is unlikely to happen: it’s much easier for people to default to using the available options provided by existing corporations.

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