|Issue:||Europe II 2008|
|Topic:||Broadband – the worsening digital divide|
|Title:||Chief Operations Officer|
|Organisation:||Entanet International Ltd|
James Blessing is the Chief Operations Officer for Entanet International, part of the Entagroup IT distribution and communications services group. Prior to joining Entanet, Mr Blessing commanded the roles of Technical Support Manager and Technical Development Manager at Zen Internet and held senior project management and technical directorship roles in the design and build of consumer facing websites for high street brands and outsourced IT support to media companies. This followed an early career in radio in which he was involved in outside broadcasting, technical operation and programme production. Mr Blessing takes an active role in the Internet industry. He is a council member of the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) and is Chair of the ISPA broadband sub-group. Mr Blessing holds a BSc in Physics with Astrophysics from the University of Kent.
The digital divide is not just a problem in emerging economies. In rural regions throughout the developing world, indeed wherever service providers are not convinced they will get a reasonable return on their investment, they do not build the broadband Internet networks needed for full participation in the Information Society. The EU established universal service obligations (USOs), but they only call for telephone service and they discourage the development by local governments and private partners of viable USO alternatives.
For some time now, many scribes in the business and technology press have been turned on by the concept of the digital divide. The term ‘digital divide’ is the assertion that, while those with higher incomes in urban areas benefit from the latest digital technologies and have full access to the worldwide web, those on lower incomes and in sparsely populated or remote regions are left behind. The reason for being left behind is that they cannot afford computers, high-speed Internet access and the latest and greatest in hi-tech entertainment equipment – or because it simply is not available to them. As technology advances at an ever-growing rate, Internet access speeds are rising and the breadth and depth of services that can be delivered to end-users is also increasing significantly. So far the growth of broadband in Europe has been a phenomenal success – in the UK alone, broadband now accounts for 83 per cent of Internet connections. However, there are some problems; new services and the latest advanced technologies are typically made available only in those parts of the service providers’ network where subscriber density is high. That means mostly in urban areas or areas where there is strong competition for business – and once again this means the same towns and cities that already benefit from higher speeds and levels of service. It is only in these more densely populated regions that the service providers are willing to risk the investment required to deliver the new technologies. They are generally averse to investing in areas where they cannot be sure of generating a solid return. As each wave of technological change – ADSL2+, Fibre to the Kerb, Fibre to the Premises – sweeps across service providers’ networks, those areas that have been previously overlooked as being low priority get overlooked again. This creates a multi-tiered level of service based on location. Those areas that are classed as unattractive today will continue to be classed as unattractive in the future unless someone intervenes (which, thanks to European Government intervention, ordinarily will not be the local government). As long as this situation continues, the dominant incumbent service provider in any given country will be able to get away with providing the absolute minimum service at the highest possible price, at the expense of the subscribers who are at their mercy. When the term ‘digital divide’ was first uttered in 1993, it was used by citizen pressure groups in the United States who wanted to force the new Internet companies to pay the additional costs of extending their products and services to lower income households. The framers of the 1996 US Telecommunications Act, after noting the existence of the digital divide, disappointed social activists by insisting it wasn’t the Government’s role to redress it. The various federal government programmes that had been set up to close the gap between the technology-rich and technology-poor groups during the Clinton era were discontinued under President Bush. After 2000, governments in more advanced countries no longer pressured high-tech companies to address the issue. As concern over the digital divide declined in the US, it surged in emerging markets. Many developing countries searched for a formula to close the gap, which would free them from undue control imposed by any other foreign interests. By 2002, over 1.4 million digital divide references to speeches and project descriptions could be found via a Google search. The concern culminated in the United Nation’s World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva, continued in Tunis two years later, where 13,000 delegates gathered to discuss the matter. Despite all the speeches and official targets aiming to close the divide at these meetings, no single formula emerged that would effectively address the problem and prevent a widening gap between the haves and have-nots as new technology and Internet access spread into the developing world. Consequently, the problem has continued to grow in many developing countries. Although the levels of service increase in developed markets such as North America and Western Europe, there are still businesses and people who can afford hi-tech equipment and fast Internet access and those who cannot. In Europe, for example, a 2007 report by the Center for Democracy and Technology that examined the current state of technology accessibility in Central and Eastern Europe highlighted the existence of a major divide between urban and rural areas and vast differences between the levels of service one would expect in a Western European Union country. To address this issue the European Union issued a directive that required the appropriate regulator in each country to set a universal service obligation (USO). Unfortunately, in the UK and other parts of Europe, the obligation was watered down and now demands only the provision of a single static telephone line. There is no specific requirement for the performance and type of data service provided. Once again, this simply leaves the consumer at the mercy of the service providers and, if they happen to be in a rural area, this gives them very little chance of obtaining use of high-speed access and services. The problem is that the European Union sees competition as the only method by which these problems can be resolved. Rather than allowing a progressive local government at the town/city or regional level to develop a strategy in combination with a number of partners to provide a full end-to-end service proposition, it forces them to build a wholesale solution where the only organisation capable of completing the work is the incumbent provider . The danger here, for European countries in particular, is that they will be overtaken in the knowledge economy. The EU needs to make some serious decisions over the coming years to make sure that the Asian Tiger economies do not leave Western Europe behind – and there is a real danger that this could happen if something is not done to impose higher levels of USOs. Rather than setting targets for ‘e-inclusion’ with woolly statements like ‘boosting broadband coverage in Europe to at least 90 per cent’, there needs to be change to the USO that provides a minimum 2Mbps to each residential or business property at no worse than 5:1 contention. However, such a USO would likely cause many an incumbent provider to have a cardiac arrest at the thought of the investment required to provide such service. The problem can be avoided by simultaneously allowing local governments or other organisations to take over the USO from any incumbent with a USO obligation and then use state funding to provide these services, since there is a clear case that the market has failed. By creating a clear opportunity for innovation in delivery of this USO service, entrepreneurs and alternative networks can compete and build niche solutions that exceed the USO, not in terms of technical requirements but rather in terms of the service. The danger, if nothing happens, is that the digital divide will mean that rural areas, hit by the fall in the jobs and revenue in the agricultural sector, will be unable to participate fully – reach their full potential – in the knowledge economy. This will leave an ageing rural population cut off from the rest of society, not by choice but by the inaction of the European authorities. The perpetuation of the digital divide and the continuing low service levels in rural areas will ultimately cause Europe to fall behind the Asian Tiger economies.