|Topic:||The evolution of the Internet in the Czech Republic|
|Title:||Minister of Informatics|
Dana Bérová is the Czech Republic’s Minister of Informatics. Previously, as a Director of the e-Government section and a Deputy Minister, she was in charge of projects to use Information Technologies within the government’s administration and in cooperation with the EU. Prior to joining the government, she worked in a variety of management positions: as a media and TV specialist and adviser, as an Editor in Czechoslovak and Czech TV, as a Financial Manager of Karel Schwarzenberg’s property and as a Programming Director of a local TV channel. Dana Bérová graduated from the Prague School of Economics, specialising in the use of Information Technologies in management.
Information and Communications Technologies provide the basis for a wide variety of services and, as they make lifelong learning possible, can reshape society. These digital technologies must handle vast volumes of data. Accordingly, broadband access is a high government priority. Several operators now provide such access in the Czech Republic, but the penetration rate is still low. Government programmes support the growth of broadband access in rural regions and the growth of e-government, e-commerce, e-banking and e-health applications.
Some experts estimate that, in the Information Society Era, the volume of information worldwide doubles every five years. This is primarily due, on the one hand, to the needs arising from the nature of the current development of the global economy and, on the other, to the development of many national economies, whose ‘material reserves’, for the most part, have already been exhausted. To maintain at least a minimum rate of development, or even keep the economies at their current level, it is necessary to seek new resources, primarily those of a non-material nature. These resources allow for the adequate enrichment and dynamism of economic, cultural, social and other environments. In order to supply markets with goods and services that are available at reasonable prices and at an acceptable quality, while encouraging the growth of sales on both national and international scales, it is necessary to add new utility values to those goods and services. Similar trends are also observed in other activities, all of which have a significant influence on the life of individuals as well as upon the Information Society as a whole. To achieve the targeted effects characteristic of the Information Society in a timely manner calls for guiding people’s ICT development in the desired direction. Thus, we proceed to the phenomenon of advancing personalisation and to the selectively focused active influence of communication media and multimedia. However, using previous approaches, not even the passive exposure to these media slowed the market as ever-wider ranges of services, often involving interactive communication possibilities, were and still are being offered to people, all of which clearly make the services personal. The role of communication media The advent of new communication and multimedia technologies, and the use thereof, is not, and has never been, an end in itself. It of course depends on the level of technological progress achieved and, at the same time, upon the general advance of society and its ability to understand both the content and form of the ever more demanding products offered. This is especially so since both the active and passive influences of communication media and multimedia are tools. These tools make it possible to effectively accelerate, encourage, address and reshape many of the dynamics of society and, as well, to educate and teach people from their early childhood to old age. Addressing the issues of lifelong learning, as a precondition for individuals playing active role in society during their entire lifes, is unimaginable without access to well-oriented sources offering a wide range of options for individual personal selection. The development of communication media and multimedia, where competition plays an increasing role, involves certain variability in the supply and demand relationship. These relations display an interesting and very important tendency towards harmonisation, which, as a rule, is the objective. Development and penetration of electronic communications The ever-increasing requirements for communication and for the transfer of large volumes of information, especially with the advent of ‘triple play’ services, call for the wide use of broadband access to the sources of such information. Accordingly, the end user’s access to broadband transmission is high among the priorities when putting new ICT to use. At present, there are a number of competing operators, using various technologies, fixed, mobile, satellite and TV cable networks, who are providing such accessibility in the Czech Republic. In the past, as in other countries, the technological environment for electronic communications in the Czech Republic was characterised by the use of more or less separate networks for the provision of telephone, telex, data, radio or television services. These were, for the most part, single-purpose networks with special user terminal equipment. Digitalisation made it possible to transfer individual signals which, after conversion to digital form, could be carried by a wide variety of telecommunications networks that had been adjusted to carry digital transmission. Converted to digital form, services are less dependent on the type of transmission infrastructure used. The Internet network is a significant example of a heterogeneous mix of different communications networks interconnected on an open basis, using IP, the Internet protocol. Accordingly, in the Czech Republic as elsewhere, a wide range of services and applications use the Internet. These services range from data communications, telephone services, radio, and television broadcasting up to complex multimedia services. Technological convergence based on digital packet transmission technology using the IP protocol as the unifying platform, provides conditions for, in particular, the rise and development of new electronic communication services. This has resulted in the development and provision of numerous products and applications. The services with the prefix ‘e’ in their designation, such as e-government, e-education/learning, e-commerce, e-health etc. are one such example of developments that have had, and continue to have, an enormous influence on the development of the Information Society in the Czech Republic. This is also the case, I believe, in all advanced countries. The users obtain the advantages and the benefits of this technological progress and the ability to access the new user-oriented services. Users include individual citizens, public and private institutions of all kinds, business entities, including small and medium enterprises and of course, electronic communications operators, who generate profit from all this. Czech users are at present switching, on a relatively large scale, from the use of dial-up narrowband access to Internet services to broadband Internet access. The country’s first high-capacity access networks, based on fibre-optic technology, are now being built and put into use. The current penetration rate, expressed as the number of active public network subscriber access lines per 100 inhabitants, is 5.6. This is far from the high levels reported by many advanced countries: nevertheless, the aggregate annual growth appears to be higher than average. Strategic objectives The national policy for high-speed access, the Czech Republic Broadband Strategy, developed by the Czech Ministry of Informatics and approved by the Czech Government in January 2005, has significantly encouraged accelerating the use of broadband Internet access. On the basis of a resolution of the Czech Government, the national budget will provide some very limited financial support during the period of 2006 to 2010 to encourage the development of broadband Internet access. The government’s support will go mainly to those rural and sparsely populated areas of the Czech Republic where high-quality high-speed Internet is not accessible at present. Support will also be provided to develop attractive local content and applications as well as to further extend the already well-developed e-government portal and to accelerate and improve existing e-commerce, e-banking, and e-health applications. The improvement and enhancement of high-speed Internet access is expected to provide conditions throughout the Czech territory for the use of modern and productive forms of employment, such as tele-working and home-working. The International Information and Communication Technologies Fair, held in Brno in October 2005, provided strong evidence of the high penetration of services provided over the Internet and through the use of the IP protocol. A number of operators delivered presentations at the fair and provided practical examples of the use of the IP protocol for good-quality voice communication and multimedia services. However, isolated, though comprehensive, events like this, where those who are interested are offered many, varied, opportunities to compare their results in a competitive context, are not the only result of current developments in the Czech Republic. There already are specific proposals on the market from several operators who are offering to establish and provide voice telephone services and ‘triple play’ services over Internet networks using the IP protocol at very advantageous prices, much more advantageous than the prices and conditions offered by operators providing traditional telecommunication services. Surveys among Czech households have shown that price has so far been a substantial barrier to Internet access penetration. At present, however, competition is forcing considerable price reductions in high-speed Internet access services. This provides users with more affordable options to extensively use IP-based services. Current estimates show that, approximately, only 7 to 8 per cent of Czech households are connected to high-speed Internet, while about 60 per cent of households have a fixed telephone line and about 70 per cent have a mobile telephone. The over all penetration of mobile telephones, judging from the number of active SIM cards, is already about 110 per cent. The expected further expansion of high-speed Internet access is associated with mobile networks and UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication System) services. In the Czech Republic, UMTS started operating late in 2005, at about the same time as the first terrestrial digital television network entered into routine operation. Looking into the future The Czech Republic, and many other countries as well, will have to address certain issues related to future developments, and the dynamism thereof, in ICT services. These new services are now becoming, due to the benefits of the IP protocol, packet communications and Internet networks, highly competitive with traditional telecommunication services including, primarily, basic telephone service and its subsequently derived services. In addition, point-to-multipoint broadcasting of television programmes and radio programmes will perhaps become available in the near future, although access networks based on fibre-optic cables will probably be preferred for these services. These developments open up more scope for the individualisation, or personalisation, of electronic communication services and especially, of the required content (e-content). Future development will show us how long society will remain content with the existing system of providing television programmes. Demand for programmes enriched according to individual preferences, interactivity and TV-on-demand-type services will, in time, certainly come to the forefront and displace traditional programming. Further, one cannot exclude, on the contrary, it is expected, that the principles on which the Internet is based will make it possible for the Information Society to also take advantage of IP-based high definition television, HDTV. Despite all our expectations regarding the benefits of the Information Society, for electronic communications that are built on IP protocols, for packet communication and advanced network structures, we will still, in all likelihood, face barriers, complications and loud protests in putting all this to work. Many operators throughout Europe, and elsewhere in the world, provide good-quality reasonably up to date traditional communication networks that are capable of providing high-quality services. These operators cannot, for obvious reasons, simply abandon their existing infrastructure and products. The question is whether, despite their efforts to reduce the costs of running their networks, they will be able to compete widely and effectively with newer, competitive, operators. New operators typically utilise advanced technologies such as VoIP and constantly introduce innovative services, many of which are difficult, or impossible, to provide with traditional networks. On the other hand, many current users are quite conservative and do not trust, or even want to use, the latest technologies and services. For many of them, reducing the cost of communications services may be neither the primary concern nor a sufficient stimulus to switch to a new operator. It should also be borne in mind that in spite of all the progress that has been achieved, particularly in improving the quality of services (QoS) in IP telephony and other areas, certain open issues still remain that hinder the free spread of new technologies and affect their acceptance amongst all users. Nevertheless, I believe that in order to address the issues related to the ‘digital divide’, to secure the clear benefits of electronic communications for the successful implementation of the European Commission’s i2010 Information Society programme and for the subsequent phases of development in Europe, it will be necessary to implement the principles underlying the contemporary Internet on a broad scale. The Czech Republic’s new regulatory framework, the preparation of which has been started, will certainly support these principles.