|Europe II 2007
|A matter of inclusion
|Minister for Communications
Paolo Gentiloni is Italyís Minister for Communications. He is a Member of Parliament first elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 2001. During the XV legislature, prior to being named minister, Mr Gentiloni was Chairman of the Parliamentary Broadcasting Services Watchdog Committee, and a member of the Chamber of Deputies Transport and Telecommunication Committee. Mr Gentiloni is a professional journalist and edited the Legambiente monthly La Nuova Ecologia from 1984 to 1993. He was the spokesman for Romeís Mayor Francesco Rutelli and was Jubilee and Tourism Councillor on the Rome City Council. He has coordinated numerous election campaigns and was a founding member of the Margherita Party, where he was Head of Communications for five years. Minister Gentiloni earned his degree in Political Science.
The Internet – the global economy and the information society – is transforming the world. It is also widening the gap between large portions of society, even within developed nations, increasingly prejudicing those who because of economic status or because they live in remote areas, have little or no access to this technology. International organisations and the worldís nations, including Italy, are working together to insure the widespread dissemination of this technology and the promotion of universal digital inclusion.
The New York Times was recently in the news because of its intention, in the future, to publish the newspaper only via web. This seems to me highly significant – it makes us all even more aware of the importance of telecommunications for global information distribution. The news merely confirms what has been happening in the past few years: progress in ICT, information and Communications technology, together with the rapid growth of global networks – of which the Internet is the most obvious example – has completely transformed the business world and the marketplace. Moreover, it seems clear how learning and sharing knowledge contributes to increase individual and community potential through new communication tools while boosting economic growth in many countries. The news I quoted at the beginning is symptomatic of this revolution. Access to information, and markets is no longer affected by the physical distance from where cultural debates take place or business is located; you can tune into a debate or visit a centre of production simply by connecting. Of course the word ësimplyí, which I have just used, could be misleading if taken to mean that a network connection is easy to access at present. Actually, this global information distribution and sharing system carries a high risk of excluding many from the system itself unless we set up ubiquitous networks capable of providing widespread, universal access that gives everybody, independently of economic conditions or geographic location, the chance of exchanging information freely, at any time, in any place. In another context, discussions hosted at the ITU, the International Telecommunication Union, in Geneva focused on the economic value of the radio spectrum, and on the possibility of it playing the same role in the 21st century as petroleum played in the 20th. The simple fact that the spectrumís economic value was the subject of debate means that increasing importance is being given to electronic communication networks, whether they operate through physical means (cable) or via radio signals. More than cable, the use of radio signals brings the networks directly to the user – wherever located – making access to information increasingly widespread and global. Wireless transmission is naturally the most suitable for cheaply and quickly setting up widespread connections; this makes it a particularly useful tool in tackling the danger of exclusion. Undoubtedly, the management of available spectrum must be carried out at a global level in order to guarantee equal use and enable the greatest degree of network interoperability. Of course, the problem of network interoperability concerns not only radio signals, but the entire network structure and whatever technology is used to convey information. The term information highway, which is used to describe networks, is illuminating. In fact, it is indicative of two levels of global harmonisation: first, making sure that all vehicles, or technologies, can use the highway; and, second, making sure that all networks can accept all the ëvehiclesí that satisfy its predefined characteristics. Metaphors aside, we need to normalise, at a global level, the network protocols and frequencies, and the information formats and communication protocols used in networked information systems. In fact, the success of the Internet is built upon the automatic systems that establish and maintain communications between the users. These automatic systems are based upon precise information, exchange rules or protocols that let the equipment coordinate the communications session, and maintain it so that users can exchange information. The capacity of networks to communicate with each other, and the ease of communication between man and terminal, are the fundamental prerequisites for global networks and real information exchange among users, no matter where they are or where the information comes from. Another issue on the electronic communications agenda is ëconvergenceí. Today there is talk of ëtriple playí, meaning the convergence of voice, data and video services, all delivered simultaneously to users on the same network, without the need for the separate networks each service required in the past. If we also include the increasingly common convergence between fixed and mobile telephony, we are speaking, then, of ëquadruple (or quad) playí. What sorts of networks, however, are needed for such broad convergence, and what are operators and manufacturers actually doing to provide quad-play? Throughout the world, research, development and deployment of NGNs, next generation networks, able to integrate fixed and mobile voice, data and video are all being actively pursued. The crucial issues manufacturers and operators alike are tackling include those of network traffic capacity, the availability of content suitable for local needs and the universalisation of access. Perhaps the biggest issue to be resolved is that of access to all citizens – regardless of where they are, where they live or their economic status. In Italy, all operators, to a greater or lesser degree, are considering the deployment of NGNs, and are trying to develop solutions based on present services and technologies. In Italy today, next generation networks mean VoIP, Voice over Internet Protocol, IPTV, Internet Protocol Television, and triple-play solutions in general, and operators are trying to identify an integrated framework for all these services compatible with the specifications emerging from NGN research. Italyís operators, as are operators throughout the world, are closely watching NGN developments around the globe, which are increasingly moving in the direction of greater service integration and the definition of common standards. Italy strongly supports all the international initiatives that promote the widest possible deployment and availability of telecommunications networks for both economic development and personal use. This means giving our support to the international bodies responsible for drawing up access protocols, deploying network infrastructure, facilitating multi-technology and multi-service access, and providing support to telecommunication operators and companies for the development of networks. Moreover, we are supporting and promoting the development of technologies that facilitate cost effective, technologically efficient, access for the population as a whole, to enable all citizens to benefit from the services provided on the new networks. We are also promoting new online services, especially those that make information and social services available to those that would be penalised if profit is the only consideration in deciding which content and applications are made available. No less important, since networks have no borders and are beyond the control of national authorities, is the development of initiatives outside national and regional spheres aimed at blocking the transmission of content that glorifies violence and racial hatred or offends the dignity of people, or involves paedophilia and pornography. Our primary concern is digital exclusion and the need to promote the digital inclusion of our entire population. At a time when network access is opening up the world, giving users a chance to reach far beyond their local environment by accessing global services and knowledge, exclusion from access means marginalisation. It is fundamentally important to provide access for those who are currently denied, for one reason or another, access to knowledge or services. What are the consequences of being denied access to the network, to the Internet and to the global information society? First, such exclusion means fewer opportunities to gain knowledge and information. In fact, if we consider the item from the New York Times I quoted at the beginning, not having access to networks might one day mean not being able to access, at all, certain sources of information. Paradoxically, this notice comes at a time when the global nature of networks makes all information, potentially at least, accessible even in the most distant and isolated areas of the planet. Second, since the tendency is to provide an ever increasing number of public services through the net, those without access will find it increasingly difficult to avail themselves of public services; they will be increasingly excluded in a world where, again paradoxically, the availability of these services is potentially ubiquitous. Digital exclusion occurs primarily on two levels. One level excludes certain, predominantly lower social strata and remote regions within a given country. Another level of exclusion is seen when entire countries or multinational regional communities lack significant access to digital communications, to the global economy and the information society. In both instances, technology instead of closing existing gaps between have and have-not communities, tends to widen them. This results in the marginalisation of increasingly large populations, areas of a country or entire multi-national communities. To address both these issues, Italy is working progressively to reduce existing differences and facilitate the use of advanced services hosted on electronic communication networks. The growing use of NGNs and the advance services and applications they make possible, makes the risk of exclusion even greater. Strong, decisive action is needed to foster widespread access for all levels of society everywhere, no matter how far, how remote, the region is.