I recently attended an excellent presentation by Catherine Middleton at the Australian Media Traditions conference at which she discussed the contradictory positions of the Government and the NBN Co on the way in which we might understand the difference that the National Broadband Network will make. Her paper was entitled, “Have We Ever Needed a Killer App? What could the NBN learn from the 1990s?”. Here are some notes, with a few asides from me.
Middleton begins by reminding us of the importance of the rhetoric of the “killer application” in the policies and plans of broadband development. She notes that, often, this “killer app” is located in the future, still to arrive but promised or imagined.
Broadband networks were initially understood as delivering content to people in a manner like television; but the alternative perspective which Middleton’s research has clearly demonstrated is that the broadband is a network – in effect, broadband is its own killer application, infrastructure to enable connectivity and user-based activity. Her problem is that the Autralian government promotes the NBN as infrastructure, as a network, but the NBN Co is building a model which implies content delivery.
Recounts the history of trials for broadband in the mid-1990s in the USA which concentrated on interactive TV, TV on demand and so on – these trials were seen as failures (as Time Warner concluded, however, the failure was one of the economics – insufficient demand to justify the investment). Killer application blurs with ‘compelling content’ – that the content is the application. However, as Middleton discovered, the story being told by the individuals connecting was different to that of the providers. The providers had not understood exactly what connectivity would do – evident in the reflections of providers who were ‘surprised’ by the importance of email. Another perspective was a provider saying it was ‘arrogant’ to assume that people want information pushed at them.
This resonates with my own arguments relating to the different understandings of how the Internet might ‘arrive’: telecommunications and media providers were strongly oriented towards a model of the Internet in which they, not users, played the determining role. In fact, the Internet as it developed, relocated the power to determine utility to the user. The internet that I claim was ‘the future-in-the-present’ was precisely a network where users’ social interconnectivity through information exchange was the primary experience of network connectivity
Middleton emphasises how content is central … but not as a given, as a contested space about the economics of exploiting content – who creates it, who circulates it and who benefits from it. Providers, not surprisingly, saw themselves as the owners of the only legitimate content.
Equally, I believe, telecommunications companies did not understand that communication would be textual, distributed and not real-time circuit-switched.
Middleton returns to the NBN, noting how the current rhetoric of the NBN is similar to that the 1994 Broadband Services Expert Group
I would add that of the 2001 report on Broadband]. It therefore implies that there is something of a return to the past, a recouping of the ideals which had first inspired the BSEG and similar thinking: but which was never realised through both failures of infrastructure development but more importantly the success of the Internet as it actually developed.
The government rhetoric is that broadband is understood as an investment in services, as an infrastructural multiplier of the investments in other areas (health, education) – that the NBN will leverage that investment, just as those investments also make the NBN sensible. The NBN cuts costs, but also improves outcomes. But, the rhetoric from elsewhere, often read off the plans of the NBN Co but also through the retail service providers’ assumptions, is a re-invention of the plans from early 2000s for the high-speed Internet as telephones and television via IP.
I would probably add a third perspective: I am not entirely sure that the ‘infrastructure’ model from the Government is that different to the content/communications model of the NBN Co which mimics the roll-out of cable for cable TV. This third perspective is that of users who are not currently connected; or which connection that maximises the immediacy and distribution within the home of connectivity – effectively more connectivity. In essence, the challenge is that the size of the investment does not match the perceived benefits of connectivity.
Essentially, Middleton concludes that there is a disconnection between the policy and developmental rhetoric (Government and NBN Co). She notes the difficulties of the current political climate within which the Opposition is critical of the NBN precisely because there is no compelling story about the difference that this massive (and world-leading) investment will make.
Middleton argues that the pay-tv approach might be the ‘leader’ to get people connected who then will discover all the other things that can be done online. But in Australia may not work because there is a significant number of people who have chosen not to connect for Pay TV.
Ultimately, Middleton concludes, there needs to be a new way of thinking about the way broadband is understood, outside of the competing rhetorics of ‘content delivery’ and ‘social infrastructure’.
In questions, Middleton makes the excellent point that the political messages needed to manage the contests over the NBN are simple and simplistic: that the faster speed justifies the investment.