The Communications Revolution

A few years back, there was a revolt of the indigenous people in Chiapas, Mexico. When the Mexican Government moved in with the army and started a very repressive campaign, the Zapatistas, the group behind the revolt, were able to get international attention through their use of the Internet. The resulting outcry forced the Mexican Government to back off from its worst excesses. The Zapatistas continue to use the Internet most effectively and there are a host of websites across the world that supports their cause. Though the Zapatistas are perhaps one of the most well known anti-government groups internationally, who have used the Internet to propagate their views, they are not the only ones. A host of radical and even neo-fascist groups use the net to connect with others and propagate their ideology.

The Internet allows for such use as it has a completely decentralised structure. Thus, information travelling over the net or stored in the computers that are the nodes of the net is not open to a single agency to control. And if there are a sufficient number of people who want to connect with each other, they can do so at costs that are very low. The low costs, the lack of a centralised control structure and the interactive networking of a large number of people provide opportunities that were not allowed by earlier technological forms. Thus, the other mass media: radio, television and the newspapers were expensive, centralised and non-interactive; the user is passive and cannot interact with the media. This is why the Internet is a completely new form of communication. While all earlier forms were either broadcast or single cast, a one to many or one to one form of communication, the Internet is multi-cast: many to many form of communications. And the costs are lower than any other form.

It is interesting to examine how the Internet assumed this structure. In theorising about technology, there have been positions that technology is inherently centralising as it leads to a grater capital intensity. A few, including the British economist Joan Robinson, have argued that technology can be capital saving and the centralising nature of technology is not inherent in it but specific to the society within which it grows. That is, the big corporations and the state, both promote centralised technology in order to control it: it is their need for control that has driven the centralising paradigm in technology. The Internet provides a classic example of the validity of the argument that technology is not inherently centralising can be seen when we examine the growth of the Internet and the PCs. The backbone network of the Internet and the PCs, the two elements crucial to the Internet came out of a conscious decision to exclude centralised structures.

The Internet grew out of the Arpanet, a US defence network whose objective was to survive a nuclear exchange. Thus, from the very beginning, it was planned to have no centralised structure: all the nodes participated in the information exchange as peers. A destruction of one or more nodes would not affect the others: the network was “democratic”. It grew initially as more and more universities got linked to the net and found this as a handy medium for fast and cheap exchange of information.  With the development of the World Wide Web by a Swiss physicist, the Internet really took off. Even though the earlier use of the net as primarily a form of information exchange has got swamped under its current commercialisation, the Internet still retains its original character of being totally decentralised.

The PCs have a similar history. The Californian counter culture groups in the seventies promoted a conscious view that centralised computers then promoted by IBM, were inherently anti-democratic. They propagated PCs as their answer and the Apple computer was the result. The PCs introduced a revolution in computing forcing the entire paradigm of computers to be changed. The Internet and the PC which can hook onto the net through a telephone line and a modem that makes it possible to transmit enormous amounts of information cheaply all over the world. And it makes it possible to harness a large a number of people together irrespective of their location: the virtual space of the net is not limited by geographical distance.

While the potential for the use of Internet is enormous and has undoubtedly been the major development in telecom, there is a flip side to this picture. As technology makes communications easier and cheaper, it also creates even sharper differences between those who can be information rich and those who cannot. Earlier, telecom meant only the Plain Old Telephones or POTs. Today, telecom means global connectivity via the Internet as well. In countries such as India, where we have one telephone per hundred and one PC per 1,000, the access to the Internet is obviously skewed in favour of the rich. Therefore, the distance between the information rich and information is likely to grow even further with newer and newer tools. This is not only true for people within countries but also between countries. The Table below shows the wide disparity between the advanced countries and the developing ones on the question of telephone and Internet access. If the potential of global connectivity is to be realised, we will have to look at not only how we provide universal access for POTs but also for the Internet.

While access to information and its dissemination can be enormously strengthened by the developments in telecom, this can happen only if people have access to the network. However, in a country such as India, the crucial issue is how do we provide telecom access. Internationally, it is now well recognised that access to telecom network must be provided to its citizens irrespective of where they live. This is the Universal Access obligation that all telecom companies carry under their license in advanced counties. Obviously, there are very large differences in costs in providing a connection in a city and one in a remote location. Such differential costs are covered by cross-subsidies either from the business traffic or from the long distance traffic. However, there is no way that rural telephony or telecom systems in economically underdeveloped regions can pay for themselves. Thus without cross-subsidies, universal access is not possible.

The danger to the citizen today, arises from the perception that an unregulated telecom network is the best condition for the people: that competition and commercial principles will automatically provide the best deal for the consumer. Such an approach does not take into account that the telecom market will automatically favour the high end users of the network and not those who will use the network sparingly. The case for universal telecom access in India has become eve weaker with the private licensees. These licenses have been issued for states and circles with very few unconnected villages. Those with the largest number of unconnected villages have found no takers. If the goal of the National Telecom Policy was to connect all the rural areas, this is even farther away today then before. As the dominant carrier — the DoT contends with the new private licensees in these circles, they also are likely to neglect other circles where the costs of telephone coverage is high and the revenue low. Thus, Universal Access is recognised as a regulatory goal and cannot be achieved through operation of the market: the market favours the rich.

The second danger arises form the need of the existing dominant carrier — the DoT — and the new private carrier both competing for the business traffic neglecting the ordinary consumer. It is known that about 10% of the telecom users, primarily in metropolitan cities generate more than 80% of the revenue of the telecom network. Thus, if the telephone carriers concentrate on these 10% users, they can protect their revenue. An example of such a lop-sided but commercially attractive approach is the separation of MTNL and its impending privatisation. This will take away the most lucrative portion of the telecom traffic and starve the rest of the network of funds. Thus, the scenario of telecom connectivity in the coming years is likely to promote even larger disparities — the metropolitan areas will be well served as they provide adequate revenue. The rest of the network will languish without funds and resources.

The promise of the net under such conditions is even bleaker. Currently, Internet facilities are not even being considered under universal access. It is available in a few metropolitan areas. Thus, while a favoured few will be global competent in informational terms, the disparities with those in smaller towns and rural areas will widen drastically. And if commercial considerations alone govern the development of the net in India, it is unlikely to see its penetration except in a few big cities.

The issue of the citizen, particularly in countries such as India is how to provide access to the telecom network and not how the net should be governed. In the west, the debate on the net has focused on how to police it from hate groups, criminals and pornographers. However, the concern of access is no longer an issue with universal access, at least for POTs having already been achieved. For us in India, the citizen should be vitally concerned with how the telecom companies provide access to the network. Unfortunately, the current debate on privatisation has become a largely an ideological one with the World Bank and the IMF pitching in for complete privatisation. The argument that only competition and privatisation leads to growth of the network has yet to be substantiated. If British Telecom became “efficient” after privatisation, so did Deutsche Telecom and France Telecom, both without privatisation. Thus such developments are far more likely to be the result of technological changes — digital switches — then their ownership structure.

Telecom has the infinite promise of allowing development at much lower costs, allowing societies to leap frog over intermediate stages. Access to information can be a motor for development. However, like all technologies, its use can also lead to growing disparities where the few grab most of the world’s resources including information. In such a scenario, the citizen is not an undifferentiated entity: the vast mass of citizens will be denied access to information in the same way as they are denied access to basic amenities of life. Thus, access to information becomes an arena of struggle for groups concerned about citizen’s rights. The struggle for virtual space of the net is a part of the on-going struggle in the real world. It is perhaps ironic that the Internet is another instrument of such struggle.