For: Community Networking 99: Engaging Regionalism Conference

29 September 1999, Mt Helen Campus, University of Ballarat
Draft 2.1, 28 September 1999:
Presentation also available

The Politics of Bandwidth

Tom Worthington

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University, Canberra


Issues of connectivity cost, the market and politics are discussed. The current uses of bandwidth and their relationship to the push for high-end products and information solutions is looked at. It is argued that technology can be produced which makes lower demands on the infrastructure, while providing an acceptable service. Ways to fund research on low bandwidth applications are discussed.


In 1994 Roger Clarke an I delivered a paper on the public interest in network services (Clarke et al. 1994). This was to establish the policy for Australian Computer Society, a professional body of information technologists. It was submitted to the ASTEC Working Group on Research Data Networks; the Broadband Services Expert Group; the Bulletin Boards Task Force; and the Senate Standing Committee on Industry, Science, Technology, Transport, Communications and Infrastructure.

At the time this seemed a little theoretical. The Internet had not yet become publicly identified as a practical global network. It seemed clear to technologists that the public switched telephone network, mobile telecommunications services, television terrestrial broadcast, satellite and narrowcast, and cable TV would merge one day soon, as they all became data streams. That convergence is happening more slowly than we expected, but policy makers have still not grasped it is happening at all.

The economics and politics associated with an information infrastructure, public fears about what may go wrong and the role of government are increasingly becoming public issues. The Y2K bug is a very technical issue which has become a front page news item.

In this brief presentation I look at some of the issues. Many of the points come from my book, published by the Australian Computer Society, in August (Worthington, 1999).

Telecommunications Convergence and the National Information Infrastructure

The very active discussion about the direction of telecommunications policy in Australia continues. However, public policy makers have not yet grasped the need for converged policies to address digital convergence. Telephone, television and data services are becoming arbitrary labels for the services delivered by a common set of equipment, spectrum and increasingly important software. The current Federal Government, with its plethora of separate IT related agencies appears to have progressed little beyond the rhetoric of the mid 1990's and the Clinton/Gore Administration's National Information Infrastructure (NII). Information technology professionals need to become active in the policy formulation process, directly with the community.

The Internet developed relatively rapidly and largely free from government interference. The current push to fit old regulations developed for previous media could be seen as a reaction from telecommunications and entertainment companies to protect their oligopoly interests. Policy makers tie themselves in knots trying to work out if the Internet is more like book publishing, newspapers, telephone, radio or TV, whereas the answer is obvious: it like all of these and other things, but is the same as none of them.

Australia is not the USA. Our infrastructure, economics and politics differ from those of the USA. While in theory Australia has a regulatory regime to accommodate many telcos, it has one dominant one (Telstra) and one lesser one (Optus). We still have a single provider of almost all local telephone networking and services. It could be argued that until, wireless local services are introduced, this is a natural monopoly. Australia's wasteful adventure into duplicated hybrid Pay-TV cabling demonstrates that the market does not necessarily produce rational results.

The future and economics of satellite services, which in earlier decades showed great potential for Australia, are now in question. However, Iridium's recent problems may be more to do with their business model, than with the potential for low-orbit satellites.

It should be remembered that a few short years ago the technology which redefined communications for businesses fax. Just as today telcos are having to change equipment and charging patters due to Internet traffic, fax then caused changes in telephone call patterns. E-commerce is not a new occurrence and can be traced back to the early days of telegraphy, one hundred years ago (Standage1998).

Technologies do not necessary become the successes their promoters envisage. It was not the Internet which telcos five years ago were counting on, it was video-on-demand. It is curious to see that even in delivering increasing bandwidth demanded for Internet services, the telcos still seem to think some sort of video on demand will be the application it will be used for.

The paper-less office has still not arrived, but the teleworking office is arriving. Expectation of ubiquitous computing and communications are creating a demand for services to support people working at least partly from home and away from the office.

The Internet

Technically, the Internet is just a collection of networks inter-connected using the TCP/IP standards. It emerged from the ARPAnet, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense to link private sector and university-based defense researchers. A consortium of researchers, including some] in Australia, is now building Internet 2, a bigger, but not necessarily better, Internet.

AARNet (the Australian Academic and Research Network) is a part of the Internet, used by Universities and the research community. AARnet had a considerable influence on the Internet which now services the wider Australian community. ARRNet will likely continue to fill this role in the future.

The Internet itself is not visible to its users, only the services carried are. The Internet has grown by new, unplanned and unexpected applications being developed and becoming popular. The first such application (and still one of the most important) was e-mail. Then there was the we and now instant messaging (a variation on e-mail). No one knows what the next will be, but like previous developments it will probably be less sophisticated than expected and will emerge from an obscure technical area. One possibility is meta-data.

Researchers have been struggling with the problem of how to efficiently catalogue and find information on-line. Meta-data (data about data) is emerging from the obscurity of library and database disciplines to become a major Internet application for organising and finding information.

Sound and moving images on-line have been relatively disappointing. This has been generally attributed to a lack of bandwidth, but may be due to the lack of user control in radio and TV being attempted to be carried over the Internet.

Information Infrastructures

As we described in 1994 (Clarke et al.), the infrastructure consists of:

The bandwidth requirements of some of these applications have actually reduced in the last five years. It is possible to have reasonable quality still images and audio over low speed links, due to improvements in the compression and transmission technology.

The Public Interest

The public's interest in the information infrastructure has been largely pushed from the policy debate by competing commercial interests. While the Internet was developed with public money for non-profit purposes, waves of opportunist companies have emerged to turn its public space into private property.

If Australia is to benefit from the next wave of Internet applications, it must cultivate the foundation of electronic communities.

One aspect of the electronic community which has faired well in Australia is the support of Internet access by public libraries. Australian Government of all political hues accepted the argument that Internet access was a natural extension to the Library's role in access to information and provided modest, but useful funding. The political rationale for this might differ from socialist ideas of equality, to economic rationalist opportunities to cut the cost of paper distribution of public information.

The corresponding need for skills in on-line literacy has been less successful. The need to be able to read and write on-line has become confused with computer programming and other more specialist skills. Business and government organisations are now suffering the consequences, by being drowned in a sea of badly written e-mail which few have the skills to read efficiently. Staff have little training in how to use the web for business purposes and businesses have not put in place programs to tell workers what is acceptable use, let alone effective use.

The Universal Telephone Service

The federation of Australian has at its core the issue of equitable access to transport and telecommunications services. The ability to provide rail, roads, telegraph and telephone links were critical in defining Australia as a political entity, as well as political issues in formulating the Australian constitution. In 1999 it would appear obvious that on-line access will define the political make-up of Australia of the next century and be at the core of political debate. However, few in policy making appear to have prepared for this.

Considering the public interest in Internet access may appear simplistic and go against free market principles. However, if issues of social equity, equal opportunity, and assistance for the socially and educationally disadvantaged do not interest politicians, then raw political effect of those who feel disfranchised as a result will.

On-line education may be about to transform education and, as a by-product, provide geographical equity for rural Australia. This assumes that the needed access to the network is available

Myths of computing and the Internet

There are many myths about computing and the Internet which impede rational policy making:

Urban biases built into IT development

There are urban biases built into IT development; telecommunications in particular. This isn't surprising as the people who design the technology live in cities and design for the people with most money (in the city).

It is easier to design technology, assuming a constant and clean electricity supply, short cable runs and a repair van just around the corner. Some technologies, such as GSM mobile telephones, have an inherent distance limitation built in. GSM was designed for European cities and can't go the distance in the Australian countryside.

Urban IT developers assume that more bandwidth (bits per second) will be available, more computer power, bigger screens and more of everything else. I suggest that Australia, and Australian companies, can benefit the rural community and make a lot of money by building robust, low bandwidth products for outback users.

IT projects to help rural Australia

A strategy I proposed at the launch of Net Traveller, was to use the Australian bush as a testing ground for military IT applications. The Internet was developed with research money from the US Defence Department. Australian Defence Research Agency could be established, modelled on the US DoD's Defence Research projects Agency (DARPA). $161 million from current internal Defence R&D could instead be diverted to grants to Australian organisations to conduct research and development, including telecommunications.

IT projects

There is a strong synergy between the needs of defence IT and that of the rural community. Both need products which will operate in remote areas, a long way from service and support, away from high speed permanent network links and under demanding conditions.

Technologies developed for defence applications in Australia could have immediate spin-off application for the rural community. In addition this would be a good test ground for products for developing countries which lack a fixed IT infrastructure.

Below are some ideas for short term projects (six months to three years) which would be likely to product large benefits for the Australian Defence Force, products useful for the Australian rural community and export products.

Proposed projects:


IT can assist the rural sector. Governments need to understand the myths of computing which impede policy making. IT development is rapid, but Australian researchers can advise what is coming, in time for policy makers to get ready. Big IT companies are not IT experts and small start-ups can be encouraged. The urban biases built into IT development can be overcome. Federal Defence research funds can be diverted to provide commercial R&D spin-offs.


About the author

Tom Worthington is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the Australian National University. He is an electronic business consultant, author and information technology professional, with 17 years experience in information technology, including nine years on high level IT policy and five in Internet applications.
E-mail: Ph: 0419 496 150

Further Information

Copyright © Tom Worthington 1999.