How to resolve the Digital Divide at the Access Level

Introduction to a viable alternative
to rampant re‐monopolisation
of Internet access networks

The electronic governance (eGovernance) is in particular the fact of the State, at its different levels of government, when it effectively uses the technical means offered by the information and communication technologies (ICT) to deliver better services and to transform its structures and behaviour in order to better correspond to the changing needs of the citizens. eCommerce is so well introduced today that it induces the residents/ citizens to request the State to provide at least its services by the very same channels.

The government answers this with more or less happiness, being however quickly confronted with the problem of the digital divide, in particular with the inequality of access of the citizens and residents to the ICT technologies and to the network. However eGovernance and eCommerce depend very clearly and in an essential way on the access networks (Internet) to deliver services. The users, whether they are on their premises or in their offices, learned how to use and trust the fixed access networks to get the necessary transmission capacity to receive television channels for example, or any other high bandwidth application such as remote healthcare for example with a good quality. Each one regrets however that the costs are so high for rather limited services compared with what the technology could offer.

The end of the telecommunication monopoly certainly produced beneficial effects, in particular in mobility, but one tends to observe, after 10 years of experience, a re-concentration in the fixed network sector, which it is advisable to study closely.

Telecom operators, as networks owners, decide alone about the deployment of the interconnections, the available services and the technological choices. This situation is clearly not comfortable. In effect, these enterprises are ‘models’ of vertical structures, providing services ranging from network construction to value added service like the famous but limited ‘Triple Play’, i.e. voice, Internet and TV. As long as the services available remain in the domain of entertainment, the consequences are not so dramatic. The problem becomes however crucial in the business arena.

Indeed, the solutions delivered decide for a major part of the regional economic development and, especially as regards eGovernance, of the future relations between the State and the citizens. In this particular case, the question to answer is whether it is reasonable, effective and efficient to trust private telecom operators to go between State and the Citizens in the delivery of essential eHealth or public safety services, a situation into which every resident may become involved as some point? One might answer that the regulation of telecommunications will take care of this.

Obviously however, the regulation of telecommunications by the law is not enough. It is indeed plainly clear that the speed of development of the technologies and their applications is by nature far higher than the speed of evolution of the legislative framework. To overcome the digital divide for example, will it be necessary that the State finances the connection of disadvantaged residents to the network? At what price and conditions? The weaknesses of the recent moves towards the unbundling of the last mile clearly demonstrate the conflicts of interest that are at stake, particularly between public and private interests. We still point out that telecommunications were privatised more than 10 years ago in answer to the incapacity of the State to face the rapid changes induced by the present technological revolution. The private sector on its side daily shows its incapacity to honestly take into account the social needs resulting from the ICT revolution, its conflicts of interests being quite naturally always arbitrated according to its own interests. More important still, the technological choices, when they deal with the basic infrastructures, mark the economic and social landscape for many years. Simply consider, to be convinced, that if the trains run on the left on the continent, it is that they appeared in England at the end of the 19th century and that the choices made nearly 140 years ago still decide current choices.

The operators, having denied this obviousness for so long, declare readily today that the only way of facing the evolution of the communication needs is to connect each building with fibre optics. They add that this operation will be very expensive. Largest of them even state to be the only ones to be able to do it.

Is this really the case? The State being disengaged, will do nothing. Today, a third actor keeps the initiative of the expression of a solution. The Civil Society - associations for instance - already showed its unique capability to solve this kind of problems which clearly arise in similar situations of management of collective and public good. The common access to the fast universal telecommunication network, Internet, fast because using fibre optic at each home, opened to all, comfortable, softly priced, built and managed as a collective good, a Commons is possible.
It is what we try to demonstrate in the following presentation. See the presentation >>> English (pdf)

French La présentation existe également en français (pdf)

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©2010 Jacques Gamboni