By: Brenda J. Trainor
For almost every social challenge, some technology has been proposed as the quick fix. Information and communication technologies are evolving quickly and so are the ideas about how to implement them to solve our society’s problems: we want to use technology to solve problems of unemployment, homelessness, health care, global warming and even lost dogs.
And that’s great, because communications technologies can provide vast amounts of information quickly and affordably to a very wide audience. They can be effective tools, if they are accessible to everyone.
Today, we call use term “Broadband” to mean the kind of network that allows us to use converged technologies – that combination of digital services that make phones, computers, and televisions work.
The convergence of voice, video and data services means that we now watch TV on our computers and on our hand held phones; that we answer the phone through our paused TV set. We send home made video clips to our family members and post them on sites like You Tube for everyone in the world to see. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have changed the way we live, play and work, and there are great opportunities for small and medium sized businesses to use ICTs to develop their growth.
The rapid changes in the communications industry requires new approaches to how we communicate with technology. Policy makers at the local, state and federal levels are reexamining how we create incentives for the ICT industry to be sure that the services we use get to all the possible customers.
‘Universal service’ is the term that describes how the telephone system in the United States began as a regulated industry. A phone system that doesn’t reach people that you want to call wouldn’t be worth much. It was more important to have the telephone infrastructure deployed “universally” by a government-regulated monopoly than it was to let “free-market” forces determine where and when the phone system would be built. That was 1800’s thinking.
Today, after the break-up the Bell Telephone monopoly a few decades ago, we’ve got free-market forces driving many different kinds of technologies offering the same kind of services: TV over cell phones, caller ID on televisions, wired and/or wireless Internet services, on networks that are WiFi, WiMax, or over fiber optic cables or delivered by satellite.
And as smart businesses know, if you don’t answer your phone, or let people know how to find you by using the Internet, chances are, you’ll lose potential business. So as the availability of Broadband grows, so grows that opportunities for all businesses.
But, broadband services don’t enjoy the assurance of the government mandate for universal service. As new entrants test out new ICT services, they must go for the proven, quick return. So, new broadband networks have largely been deployed first in the dense, urban areas where the promise of a good, quick return is more assured. As a result, more rural areas have been left out of a lot of new technology deployments. As many of the new network services also require expensive end user equipment (like computers, modems, and routers) and recurring monthly fees, a lot of people in economically-disadvantaged areas simply haven’t been able to afford the new services.
And so has been created the digital divide, the division of the haves and have-nots with respect to information technologies. And in a market-driven democracy, information is an essential component for success.
Policy makers are addressing this concern with proposals at all levels of government for solutions. Local governments have stepped in to provide wireless networks when businesses haven’t gotten there fast enough, and have developed policies for “digital inclusion” to assure that wireless, cable, and phone providers serve all parts of a community with affordable services. State governments are focusing economic development strategies with new policies to encourage “Broadband for All.” A report issued in July 2007 from the Public Policy Institute of California describes how California government might address urban and rural disparities in broadband availability and adoption. Federal legislators debate the rules of who should and shouldn’t be allowed to provide telecommunications services.
The affordable distribution of information to all who need it is as important as the distribution of water, or electricity, or other things we consider to be “utilities.” Smart businesses will be well-served to keep an eye on the trends around ICT policy to develop creative ways to market their products and services and keep up with the crest of this wave of changes in how we do business.
Trainor is the President of Frontier Trail, Inc. a communications technology consultancy based in Monrovia, CA. She can be reached at Trainor@FrontierTrail.com.