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Convergence or Re-convergence?

Communications technologies are generally considered to be converging. I have been researching the impact of government-business relations in the deployment of communications technologies, particularly broadband, in Canada and Australia since 2005. Canada leads (and continues to lead) Australia in terms of both speed and adoption of broadband services. My initial findings suggested that Canada's integrated regulatory system. combined with greater provincial and municipal involvement in deploying broadband networks, explained the different broadband outcomes in each country.

To explain the differences in broadband speeds and adoption, I have been working on the concept of the varieties of particularism which exist at the nexus of government, business and technology to explain the different habits of users and how these habits require a mix of services and delivery systems to meet the needs of users. A simple example is that while fibre optic cable to the home might be considered the best case scenario, if it costs users too much to have this type of access when ADSL+ over copper wire will suffice, then there is no need to deploy best case technology if users do not require such an advanced service to meet their needs. On the other hand, if users require reliable, high-speed two-way communications networks for applications such as tele-health, for example, then a symmetrical high-speed cable (whether coaxial or fibre-optic) is most desirable. The difference is that a metropolitan user of Facebook should be a lesser priority for governments than a user who needs broadband access for health or educational purposes.

Naturally, I have adopted (unapologetically) a political science approach to explaining the differences between Canada and Australia. Put simply, I am interested in the distribution of power within society, and how communications policy determines who gets 'what, when and how' (1) and equally 'who says what to whom in what channel with what effect' (2). A noticable generalisation is that Canada's 'communications mosaic' (3) is an innovative conglomerate of public, private and community politics. I am sure economists could statistically prove that this 'mosaic' is inefficient, but in an era of convergence, I wonder how efficient Australia's 'single national solution' (aka the NBN) will be in enabling the deployment of a communications system which is riddled with legacies that commenced with the deployment of telegraph systems over 150 years ago?

If we focus purely on how politics influences the way in which broadband networks are enabled, coordinated and regulated, the Canadian 'mosaic' prevents the dominance of any one approach. This is obvious in the patterns of punctuated stability which appear (I am using the ideas of technological momentum to explain the way society and technology influence one another within the context of legacies of historical institutionalism to explain the nexus of government, business and technology) when each of the technological developments from the telegraph to broadband is examined.

The difficulty I am experiencing is how to address the complexities of technological evolution where distinct approaches to telecommunications and broadcasting policy collide: is there a coherent way to explain the collision of policies which enable, coordinate and regulate physical infrastructure with the nation-building focus of broadcasting, where policy is particularly focused on policing content, protecting national culture, and providing public information?

It seems that in Canada's 'mosaic', there are numerous approaches to dealing with the political issues of infrastructure deployment and content provision. My examination of the trajectories of electronic communications technologies suggests that the widespread distribution of power in Canada prevents any one approach from dominating. In comparison, Australian communications providers have to wait until the government does something first - an approach which is so entrenched - that unless the government moves, there is so much uncertainty for businesses that there is no point 'jumping the gun'. Indeed, most content and infrastructure providers in Australia have rarely risen above 'second-mover' status as a result of the 'Australian way of "doing" communications policy.

This brings me to my point: is it really about convergence, or has policy deliberately kept the traditional broadcasting and telecommunications industries diverged? While this is true to some extent in both Canada and Australia, I argue that the greater distribution of power in Canada limits the ability of the federal government to sustain divergence in light of the numerous historical legacies that empower municipalities and provinces to do what cannot be done in Australia's centrally controlled system. For Australia, divergence is so ingrained as a policy paradigm that dealing with convergence is much more difficult. I would argue that it is easier to deal with reconvergence, as Canada seems to be doing, than with what is arguably closer to true convergence in the Australian New Media industries.

Notes:

(1) Lasswell, H. D. (1936) Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. New York: McGraw-Hill.

(2) Lasswell, H. (1948). 'The structure and function of communication in society'. In Bryson, L. (ed) The Communication of Ideas (pp. 37-51). New York: Harper & Brothers.

(3) Wilson, K.G. (2000) Deregulating Telecommunications: U.S. and Canadian Telecommunications, 1840-1997. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

(4) Stewart, A. & Hull, W.H.A. (1994) Canadian Television Policy and the Board of Broadcast Governors, 1958-1968. Vancouver: University of Alberta Press.