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July 16, 2008

High–Speed Broadband coming to Britain from BT

High-Speed Broadband coming to Britain from BT


Yesterday BT announced one of the most significant moves of its history and one of fundamental importance to the future of UK PLC which is its willingness to invest in Hi-speed broadband networks. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of this announcement as a hi-speed network is crucial for maintaining parity in the global marketplace. In ten years time any country which does not have the majority of its population accessing these networks will be severely diadvantaged for advanced economies will be highly dependent upon these networks.

The Current Situation

Only a few months ago I was reporting on the problems of taking the next step in the development of the UK as an important hub within the developing networked society. This centered around the issue that Britain currently lacked and had no plans for a high-speed broadband network. From a media and general economic perspective having a network like this is the essential next infrastructural step to keep UK PLC at the front of the pack. In a few years time countries that do not have a hi-speed broadband network will be economic laggards. From the perspective of the domestic consumer the introduction of high-speed broadband will enable households to download streamed moving images at High Definition (HD) levels of quality driving large flatscreens. This means that games, films, TV style programmes can al be accessed through computers and if necessary stored on domestic servers etc. Increasingly business is depending on the use of files such as these as well. Internal corporate communications and external marketing of moving images will be able to be downloaded from company servers. Imagine how useful that would be for travel companies or estate agents. Viewing the hotel you want to stay in or a house you are interested in viewing would be great for prospective clients and could cut down on work from the companies. From the perspective of media students who will be looking for media work there is likely to be lots more of this in the business sector in the future.

This Financial Times technology report gives the current realistic situation for UK download speeds which are currently slower than German & France! This FT report on the BT announcement has a useful video embedded.

BT to pump £1.5bn into broadband

Britian's future has just changed for the better with the announcement made yesterday from BT that they will invest around £1.5 billion into high-speed broadband networks:

The plans would bring 40% of homes in reach of an ultra-fast service by 2012. BT is also planning to put fibre-optic cable into about 1 million homes, making the service even faster for those customers. (BBC story 15 / 07/08)

The domestic bait is the promise of a fantastically diverse entertainments / work from home system:

The group's plans should enable homes to run so-called "multiple bandwidth-hungry applications" which would enable some family members to watch high definition movies while others were gaming or working on complex graphics projects. (ibid)

There is one major obstacle in the way and that is the current regulatory environment which is discouraging BT from investing in a system like this. To install it into homes would be an immensly expensive operation and BT currently has to provide a universal service down copper wires which can't carry much information compared with optic-fibre cables. Unless BT is allowed to charge realistic rates on its investment then of course it isn't going to do it:

A spokesman for the firm said BT hoped to discuss updating its current universal service obligation with the watchdog.Under current rules BT must provide a copper connection to all homes, however, the firm says this is out of date and unnecessary for updated services based on a fibre-optic connection.BT's rival Virgin Media already uses fibre-optic cables, which are faster than BT's copper lines, although the final connection to the home user is done with traditional coaxial cable. (ibid)

Digital Divide or Cultural Citizenship?

Of course different charging structures for different services will raise complaints from many quarters that universal equality of service will not be available with poorer families not being able to afford the high-speed services. This again opens up the dangers of a 'digital divide'. No government is going to be able to justify higher taxes to subsidise BT in installing entertainment lines to domestic properties. Rory Cellan Jones' blog offers some useful comments on some of the costings involved however we need to think bigger than this at the levels of regulation and what we demand and need to be active citizens in a digital future.

At this stage perhaps we need to reinvent the notion of public service 'broadcasting' into a notion of public service media access based upon the central concept of cultural citizenship. This would help the concept fit the digital age as currently the very term 'broadcasting' is rapidly becoming an anachronism.  Arguably there is a case for the so-called annual TV licence fee to be increased by say £10 pa with that amount ring-fenced for the ongoing installation of hi-speed optic fibre cables into domestic properties. This money would go to BT on the understanding that universal access was developed within a certain timeframe. This would ensure that in say fifteen years time there wasn't a huge inequality in terms of access for bad access will undoubtedly be educationally disadvantageous for the worst off.

Educational Infrastructure and Networked Society Futures

These likely developments also raises the issue of ensuring that educational institutions are guaranteed the highest possible quality links. Currently the exponential development of the world wide web in developing data heavy content means that many schools and colleges which at one time had connection speeds which were more than adequate are now lagging. The ever increasing need of students and staff to utilise YouTube and similar sites is giving IT  managers headaches throughout the educational system. New media specifications at A level for example are also demanding that student work is available online for moderation putting even more strain on currently overloaded dystems. At the strategic level government needs to be preparing educational institutions for a high-speed broadband world, otherwise the educational system which should be providing tomorrow's leaders for a fully developed networked society will be lagging.

changing the Regulatory Structures

It is important that all MPs are familairised with sober rather than hyed up notions of what the networked society might look like. I'm highly sceptical of the notion of Media Studies 2.0 and an assumption that independent and individual contribitions to networked society are developing into anything serious in economic terms rather than  the creation of cultural and social networks /communities are likely to be thin rather than thick. Nevertheless Ofcom needs to be persuaded that the changes in regulations that BT requires are largely put into place however there needs to be the 'but' of universal access. BT can quite justifiably argue that it simply isn't economic to deliver this. It is responsible to its shareholders many of which are pension funds with ordinary peple's money invested. It is safe to make the presumption that nationalisation and public subsidy isn't going to be the path taken therefore the licence fee linked to notions of cultural citizenship seems the best way forward. I notice that Ofcom already has a Citizenship and Convergence consultation paper published. It is important that readers start to interact with these initiatives as the future of digital citizenship within a networked society is a high-stakes issue.


Times business online16th July 2008

Times business online 15th July 2008

January 18, 2008

Can We Escape Facebook Stories Right Now?

Can We Escape Facebook Stories Right Now? (or Facebook even?)

Fabook Eye

Whatever else it is, Facebook has become the thing to discuss almost everywhere. With social networking sites taking the teen generation by storm - most of my students at thiws level subscribe to at least two- social networking is a social phenomena that seems set to stay and develop. Those who laughed at Rupert Murdoch for investing in MySpace are certainly laughing on the other side of their face by now. I have to say here the delightful naivety of those teens who subscribe to MySpace and think that "Tom" is the owner makes it worth teaching media studies as the surprised faces realise that they are subsribing to the business empire that owns The Sun and yes The Times. But I digress because the new enemy on the block perhaps far more unpleasant than the right wing anti-BBC stance of Murdoch are the hard-core youngish neo-conservatives who really own Facebook exposed by Tom Hodgkinson in the Guardian earlier this week whilst today the BBC has posted a story on the dangers around privacy concerning Facebook.  

Is Facebook Providing a Challenge to Alternative Systems? could have a Facebook account, and I suspect that this swamps number 1 or 2.  For social networking within the academic community, Facebook is all-conquering, and we observe a startling number of students who have a Facebook account before they arrive or get one soon after they start. And if you already have a Facebook account then it's not immediately obvious that you need another place to write about what you're doing, or another place to share your photos (hence the precipitous drop in the number of photos uploaded; they've all gone into Facebook instead).

With social networking being the new media phenomenon of the moment with every teenager wishing to have 'creds' subscribing to at least one (and often more) social networking accounts, and with Facebook specifically being the 'flavour of the month' traffic and enthusiasm for the less measured sort of social interactions on some other sites may be being reduced. The above quotation from a discussion on Warwick Blogs being a case in point.

Facebook along with other more established social networking sites are excellent examples of 'New Media' institutions becoming established. Either, as in the case of My Space (courtesy Rupert Murdoch), being owned by  rapcious established entrepreneurs or as in the case of Facebook by rapacious new entrepreneurs. The key shift in media provision by the owners is the relaince upon User Generated Content to allow everybody participating in one of these media environments to gossip about each other. It saves employing gossip columnists aprt from anything else. 

As social networking develops and matures it may well be that certain audiences start to move to different social networks which have a different demographic base. Facebook has clearly developed a target audience significantly different to Bebo. If this  continues to develop then  the advertising core behind these sites will start to become more social network site specific. Arguably there is a shift of Lifestyle magazines onto the net with the added advantage for the owners that they pay little or nothing for content provided by the users instead. (Here the net effect of the net is to increasingly push responsibility towards the users - think banking - and provide an environment). Perhaps social networking sites will increasingly focus upon specific demographic factors but provide a global audience for these common factors. Thus social networking could start to provide a huge boost for social and cultural globalisation which has to date still been more of an economic phenomenon. 

Where is it all going?

For cultural studies this raises issues of continuing hybridisation which is something that is probably being researched already. This kind of thing is likely to move into 3D virtual world's as they develop beyond the R & D stage into full media environments.  

Personally I have little doubt that an increasing amount of shopping for a variety of goods will move into virtual 3D environments such as Second Life. This will require a much more efficient broadband infrastructure than currently exists. This week's Economist has written a useful comparative article on the development broadband networks and useage in the World's more developed countries. 

Economist on Broadband

Easy access to cheap, fast internet services has become a facilitator of economic growth and a measure of economic performance. No wonder, then, that statistics show a surge in broadband use, especially in places that are already prosperous. The OECD, a rich-country club, says the number of subscribers in its 30 members was 221m last June—a 24% leap over a year earlier. But it is not always the most powerful economies that are most wired. In Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland, over 30% of inhabitants have broadband. In America, by contrast, the proportion is 22%, only slightly above the OECD average of just under 20%. (Economist Jan 19th - 25th, 2008)

Oddly on this analysis the USA is going to have to get its act together in terms of communications infrastructure. social networking popularity is only a low level phase in the development of Web 2.0. The issue is the development of interesting online environments which large numbers of people are going to be comfortable with and 3D environments are going to be the places to be. whilst some will be fantasy areas there will be a lot which are more like mirrors of the everyday in which leisure, value added services and business transactions will take place. 

Of course one set of statistics only gives a very narrow framing of what is happening. As the US has the largest population in the above table then there are presumably a larger number of subscibers hence the mass customer / audience base to encourage future developments.  The BBC story on the Broadband digital divide is relevant here. Given the high cost of installing cabling networks clearly cities are going to become well served. In america with huge areas relatively sparsely populated there could be serious social divisons based around access opening up - to add to the other ones. Interstingly pysically small but quite dense populations such as Denmark and the Netherlands with a more social democratic committment to service provision to citizens are likely to gain significantly from high speed broadband development. No accident that they are already the countries which are most developed in this respect. 

The Net Effect 

One can only be speculative at this stage and comment on emrgent trends. Currently social networking is new exciting and gobsmacking because people can suddenly publish something and find a global audience, until a very short time ago unimaginable for an individual. Now mainstream media will increasingly be developing environments now the user generated thing is becoming established. what sort of environments people will want isn't yet clear but the current phase of Facebook et al is probaly only temporary. The question is what will the Rupert Murdoch's profits from MySpace advertising be reinvested into: 2nd Life or something similar?  You can bet he is watching the audience data closely!

As for the infamous Facebook, well I buy into Hodgkinson's arguments. I thoroughly dislike the fact that they keep information about you and you can't cleanly unsubscribe. They are also very snotty if you do try and shut down an account. I advise my students to approach it very cautiously. They push  everything thay can to the limit in the search for audience and the corresponding advertising contracts, Beacon and now "Scrabulous" as minor entrepreneurs trade on other brands. 

As for information and data privacy this is a serious breach of human rights and thankfully regulation is catching up!

The investigation follows a complaint by a user of the social network who was unable to fully delete their profile even after terminating their account.

several reasons to join me on Warwick blogs and forget Facebook!

Social Graphs (Up date September 2008)

An advert which appeared next to this page about Social Graphs led me to check out the term. I discovered a useful article on the Facebook hype from the Economist last autumn which explained exactly how social networks such as Facebook didn't in fact add network value, unlike postal and telephone networks. The latter operate under something called Metcalf's Law. The article seems to bear out my scepticism for this phenomenon:

But unlike other networks, social networks lose value once they go beyond a certain size. “The value of a social network is defined not only by who's on it, but by who's excluded,” says Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley forecaster. Despite their name, therefore, they do not benefit from the network effect. Already, social networks such as “aSmallWorld”, an exclusive site for the rich and famous, are proliferating. Such networks recognise that people want to hobnob with a chosen few, not to be spammed by random friend-requests. (social Gragh-iti, The Economist Oct 17th 2007)

It comes as no surprise that the rich and powerful want exclusive social networks. Virtual reality appears to be mirroring social reality. Well who would have imagined that?

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