Building the Broadband Economy from the Bottom Up: A Community Informatics Approach to BB and Economic Development

Posted on September 8, 2009


High speed Internet at relatively affordable prices is rapidly becoming available in large parts of both the developed and developing worlds. This means that the technical restrictions on high volume information access and transaction management, very high speed communications at a distance, and a highly expanded range of Internet and information management capabilities are rapidly disappearing. The challenge remains however, as to how those at the grassroots and particularly in developing countries can take advantage of these developments to improve their level of economic well-being, access to employment and to the realization of additional opportunities for themselves and their children. The risk is that high speed Internet will result in more drain from local economies into more highly developed and capital intensive applications and their centralized and corporate sponsors rather than a move of resources and development in the other direction. The challenge is to examine these broadband initiatives, explore the risks and identify the opportunities associated with these and identify means for realizing opportunities at the grassroots for broadband use through the development of bottom-up community based – community informatics – strategies and applications.

Recently there has been (among others), the announcement of the Australian government’s $43 billion (AU) broadband program; the Obama government’s $40 billion intention to include broadband as part of the US stimulus program; the opening of a new fibre optic link between Africa and the rest of the world; and the publication of the World Bank’s most recent reports on Broadband and Economic Development. Thus there appears to be a convergence towards a significant raising of the profile and related expectations concerning the transformational opportunities that increased bandwidth are supposed to achieve for lagging, moribund or “developing” regions or economies.

Precisely how that is to occur is regrettably left somewhat vague in these announcements and programs, being replaced rather with the echoing sounds of other such hyped up programming and governmental announcing concerning Internet related funding programs (q.v. the Connecting Canadians Agenda, Networking the Nation (Australia), Technology Opportunities Program (USA). In fact, the linkages between broadband and economic development or even Internet access and economic development remains unclear although the macro-economists at the World Bank seem to have divined some correlations (with the direction of causality for these relationships as with most such correlational analyses, seeming to remain a somewhat open question).

Of course, as with the earlier round of similar ICT boosterism the (good) intentions of the perpetrators – to provide justification for public investment in what many see as being a private sector preserve – evidently needs to be masked in this way in order to gain the required public/political support. However, acting in this way is not necessarily good in the long run and may in fact be downright damaging.

Apart from anecdotal evidence the relationship between the Internet (not to speak of broadband Internet) and economic development in low income regions is to this point rather shaky and given the highly variable results of the various experiments, projects and programs clear supportive evidence may be a long time coming. This is NOT to argue that such investments shouldn’t be made – in fact not only should they be made but they are absolutely essential for a variety of reasons. However, it is to argue that making the argument for widely available broadband in this way builds up the wrong kinds of expectations, introduces the wrong metrics and once the assessments come in inevitably lead to the wrong conclusions and ultimately wrong recommendations and the actions that flow from these.

Further from a community informatics perspective announcing (and implementing) of such funding programs without appropriate attention (and financial support) being given to the related requirements to achieve effective use is to render these programs rather more in the form of ISP support programs than true economic or social development initiatives.

The notion that the simple provision of Internet access, high speed or no, will somehow magically lead to enhanced economic activity among the otherwise marginalized without an associated investment in training, small business opportunity identification and supports, training in enterprise development and management, new product and service identification R&D and so on is of course, naïve in the extreme. Internet access and particularly high speed access will more likely have the effect of further empowering the empowered and enabling the enabled than of achieving its opposite given that the default position of these installations is directed towards achieving more of what already exists i.e. more concentration, more centralization and more delocalization of wealth, employment and production rather than less.

These outcomes are not of course, inevitable; but they are the “default” which means that in the absence of some sort of outside intervention – a program to change the otherwise inevitable direction, these outcomes will prevail. That of course, is one of the most significant backgrounds to a community informatics—working in whatever way is possible to intervene against the inevitable outcome to achieve objectives which resist concentration, achieve decentralization and increase localization. But these are uphill struggles.

By making the arguments for broadband and high speed internet without recognizing the default outcomes or giving support to activities meant enable alternative outcomes the proponents of these initiatives are doing their stated intended beneficiaries a most significant disservice.

In fact, of course, the argument for broadband can and should be something rather different. The argument that having access to broadband is becoming a necessary component of living a productive life in modern society, of being an active and informed citizen, of having the means to be a good and supportive parent, and so on is certainly true and should probably be sufficient justification.

That broadband is becoming a necessary pre-requisite for (the platform on which is being provided) a range of information intensive public (and private) services in such areas as training, health promotion, continuing professional education, environmental monitoring are probably sufficient in themselves to warrant broadband service into all but the most remote and sparsely populated regions. Notably these services are rapidly being developed as an alternative to or supplement for the rather more expensive face to face services. As well, even in the most remote and sparsely populated areas the opportunity to use broadband as a base for remote sensing and environmental monitoring would be a strong incentive.

The danger with putting all the justifying eggs in the economic development basket is that when those eggs fail to hatch or to produce healthy and sustaining chickens the temptation will be to toss out the entire batch and move on to some other initiative.

The first round of public internet investment was done using the metaphor of the Information Highway. Perhaps this round of investment and specifically for broadband can be rephrased as making an investment in a high speed information freeway system.