Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Convergence and the Digital Economy

I managed on Friday to get a submission in to the Convergence Review Framing Paper. The submission only goes to the language of markets, competition and regulation; arguing that now is a good time to get greater clarity and accuracy into terms that have been hollowed out.

The Convergence Review comes as the Government is ramping up its "Digital Economy" rhetoric. Indeed the two pieces of work are technically housed in the same Branch of the Department. This is unsurprising as they are ultimately related.

But they also have equally long histories.

Going through some old papers yesterday (I was only moving them from place A to place B) one caught my eye, titled The convergence of technology: impact on telecommunications, broadcasting and television. The author is listed as an Australian lawyer, who starts;

In introducing this topic - the convergence of technology - one could not do better than quote another Australian [names the Chair of an Australian regulator];

"The lines between historically well defined industries have been blurring as the potential in new computing and communications technologies is exploited globally".

The consequence of this blurring on regulatory regimes ... will be addressed a little later. First I will describe what this convergence is and touch on the plethora of new services which it has brought forth.

After describing the new services he goes on;

The basic policy question which is confronting (or has recently confronted) nations is whether this current building of a more advanced communications network is most effectively done within established regulatory constraints or whether there is a need for restructuring those constraints in order to maximize benefits of the convergence of technology. Internationally, competition is the fashion and every nation will feel its effects. ...

In Australia the regulatory regimes, and the traditional regulatory regime in particular, are being re-affirmed in an effort to deal with the new technologies of telecommunications and computers, and to provide communications services to all Australians equally.

The passages quoted could well describe the current Australian situation. We have the "Convergence Review" grappling with these constructs while the telecommunications policy regime is delivering the NBN and a revamped USO framework to deliver on the goal of services to all Australians.

Yet the author was J. Kench addressing the 1985 World Telecommunications Forum, the regulator was David Jones from the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal who uttered his words addressing the same forum in 1983. The new services catalogued were things like teletext and e-mail (X.400 based), the converging telecommunications technology was the ISDN. The article was really a peon to competition in telecommunications - coming as it did post Davidson and pre the 1988, 1991 and 1997 telco reforms.

The interesting thing is that all the major legislation under consideration by the "Convergence Review" was created after the article. It poses the first question for the review - given that convergence is an ongoing process how do you craft the regulatory structure to sustain the further challenges that will occur over the next twenty-five to thirty years?

The second question is really what do we mean by "convergence". A very good paper by Jonas Lind, Convergence: History of term usage and lessons for firm strategists, from 2004 tracks the use of the word "convergence". He first finds that the usage matches the Gartner group concept of A Hype Cycle, reaching its first peak in 1994 (the Peak of Inflated Expectations) before crashing to the Trough of Disillusionment in about 1997 before going to a Plateau of Productivity since. The second finding is that the term is very indistinct in meaning. Lind's focus is on the use of the term as a motivator of corporate strategy. However the statement is just as true for public policy.

One other service Lind does is trace the history of the term - he credits it to a fascinating article "The Convergence of Computing and Telecommunications Systems" by Farber and Baran from an "Electronics Issue" of Science in March 1977. The issue as a whole is worth a read nearly thirty-five years later.

(Note: Kench's speech was published in the Telecommunications Journal Vol 53 No 8 1986. Interestingly it doesn't appear to exist in an electronic resource. That Journal was published by the ITU, starting as the Telegraph Journal in 1869, becoming the Telecommunications Journal in 1934 and now published as ITU News since 1999.)

(As a complete aside Lind has blogged about telco customer support issues in Sewden. Sounds just the same as Oz - then again the case is a global brand that is present here).

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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