April 17, 2009 | Ronda Jambe

Greedy for Broadband

What is the true value of a national broadband infrastructure? That’s a big ball of string to unravel, or perhaps it’s a tangle of fibre optic cables. At the very least, it is in the eye of the beholder. Are there some who think Australia doesn’t need world’s best practice information infrastructure in today’s world? For those doubters, I can recommend a lengthy reading list. Most of it is dated, because those arguments were being made at least 10 years ago.
Does anyone remember the ‘New Silk Road’ documents the government put out in the late 1990’s? These made the argument about international competitiveness, getting products to market, etc. All still valid, and a similar case has also been made in relation to mobile phones and pigs in African villages. Conclusion: business, development and information technology go together like custard, jelly and fruit salad (if you will excuse the trifling comparison).
But my purpose here is more mundane, more like my own life in fact, which needs broadband just as much as business. In aggregate, people like me, who blog, shop, look things up and communicate form the other side of the broadband equation, and we are hungry for the connectivity. As illustrated by Graham’s blog about using Google Earth and talking history with his son, fast internet extends our sights, sounds and sensitivities in surprising ways. The sheer marvel and utility of Google Earth alone has turned this ‘zoom in’ concept into a commonplace technique on TV.
Being away from all day access has focussed my mind on exactly what I need it for. Then, in Rotorua, a motel with free wireless broadband! I seized upon it, and initially the connection worked fine. Imagine just putting in a network name and password supplied by the front desk, just like in the ads. The next morning, of course, the narrative unfolded, and a nice young Chinese guy had to fix it, twice. Conflict and resolution, with a happy ending. I look forward to the day when free wireless broadband is standard equipment in hotels, and resent hotels that want $10 per hour for access.
Finally I was able to deal with the personal and professional tasks that had been piling up, difficult to complete in half hour chunks at a library or internet cafe: a few messages that required at least response, but can wait until next week, several overseas friends and relatives whose relationships with me are almost exclusively conducted via email, and meeting up arrangements with friends here. For conveying detail, email is better than phone, you have it in pixels if not print.
Because my mother was never interested in using the internet, and can’t easily reach me (or I her) while I’m travelling, I rely on people back in her area to fill me in on the latest. They tell me her companion has been moved into a rehab following a second stroke. That is reasonably important information for me, and my budget for telecoms does not extend to usurous international roaming rates, especially for lengthy family chats. So the internet, specifically email, will have to do.
The social uses of technology are generally undervalued, (lots of research on that) but they are part of the web of communications that maintain countries and societies. They are related to having a knowledgable society, and morph into citizen participation at the edges. Maybe I’m in the minority in using Get Up and (sometimes) the international version, Avaaz. But many people totally depend on the internet for deeper news than the TV can offer. Watching Fox news on cable reminds me just how bad and trivial US mainstream in particular can be. Do they have a team that sits down to deliberately plan segments that will dumb down the population? Most of their segments would make half interesting sidebars. The internet, especially streaming such as You Tube, is now essential for maintaining political and democratic integrity. It is the mainstream.
Coda: It is darkly hilarious to read that the Brits are now nervous about the security implications of the 10 billion pound contract for upgrading the telephone system that they awarded to the Chinese company Huawei, which just happens to be headed up by a former army officer, Ren Zhengfei. With all the whispers and worry about cyberwarfare and Chinese hacking into Rudd’s email, perhaps they should go back to the research from 10 years ago.
Helen Margetts, of the London School of Economics, warned back then about the dangers of placing integrated IT infrastructure and systems in the hands of large outsourced companies. She argued that this transfers too much power to groups that are removed from government scrutiny. She wasn’t thinking about Chinese companies back then, but she probably is now.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 4:56 am | Comments Off on Greedy for Broadband |
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