Tara Brabazon: The Finns have got it right

Finland has recognised broadband access to the internet as essential to citizenship; Australia and others still lag unacceptably far behind, writes Tara Brabazon

August 11, 2010

I often wonder what would have happened if Australia had been colonised by Finland instead of Britain. Finnish history and politics have maintained a constant if alternative refrain through my academic life. When studying survey courses in European history, I found it was the Finns who best balanced individual rights and societal goals, social justice and competition. Public education, universal healthcare and affordable childcare are part of the expectations and realities of Finnish life. Now, one more right has been folded into citizenship.

On 1 July this year, every Finnish citizen was guaranteed the legal right to a broadband connection with a performance of at least 1Mb per second. The aspiration is to provide the entire population with a 100Mbps connection by 2015. Telecommunication companies must ensure that all residents have access to broadband connections with this changing but legally enforceable minimum speed. Suvi Lindén, Finland’s minister of communications, confirmed to the BBC that, “We considered the role of the internet in Finns’ everyday life. Internet services are no longer just for entertainment.” For Lindén, broadband is an essential public service, just like electricity and water.

This commitment has a long history. The 1987 Telecommunications Act removed exclusive rights and licences to all telecommunications activity. Implementing the Universal Service Directive in 2007 and enhanced by the Communications Market Act of 2009, a minimum speed for internet connectivity was specified, which the Ministry of Transport and Communications would increase to match future minimum requirements. The Finns moved beyond “access” to “information” and created a meaningful minimum level of accessibility to ensure functional use of the web. The National Plan of Action for Improving the Infrastructure of the Information Society was initiated in December 2008. This acknowledged that efficient broadband not only enhanced the value of citizenship but also increased economic growth and established regional equality.

By May 2009, 70 per cent of Finnish households already maintained a broadband connection, with 99 per cent of households possessing the opportunity to attain one. Recognising the gap between these two statistics, access becomes only one variable to address in initiating online literacy. But a national commitment ensures that when late adopters take their first steps into a web-based environment, they will see the potential of a service, rather than having to struggle to overcome the inequalities of infrastructure.

The Finns recognised that if public services are to be migrated online and lifelong learning and educational materials are to embed large sonic and visual files, then a decision had to be made to align broadband provision with citizenship. In Britain, provision of broadband remains a political promise, deferred through the scale of post-credit crunch debt, not a legal right.

Only two days before this landmark Finnish moment in internet history, on 28 June, a US Senate Committee on Homeland Security made a very different decision. It approved the presidential right to close off internet access when the nation is threatened by “cyber attack”. Senator Joe Lieberman proposed these changes. They were granted the Orwellian legislative label of “The Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act.”

While these debates about rights, citizenship, protection and terrorism are being waged, Australia is hobbling along the information superhighway. The nation is not parked in a metaphoric roadside restaurant, but the schemes, policies, goals and aspirations are placing the nation in cruise control. Like his many Australian Labor predecessors, Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister, promoted grand gestures and extraordinary phrases such as “super-fast broadband” and the unfortunate acronym “DER”, the Digital Education Revolution. In Australian English, “der” (which also has the alternative spelling of “derr”, for added emphasis), is the expression of a self-evident truth. It can be loosely translated into “that is obvious, you moron”.

The imperative of DER was to “universally improve access to the digital environment” for all students in secondary schools. Like the Finnish scheme, the goal was to address regional injustice. Readers may have already noted the shortcomings: improvement is not the same as access; and students in secondary schools are a fraction of the citizenry. The government promised A$2.2 billion (£1.26 billion) in investment. However, when analysing this commitment, only A$7 million over a four-year period was promised to improve internet access through the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Public Internet Access.

Perhaps I have worked for too long in universities, but whenever I hear the word “partnership” (particularly when it is followed by “agreement”), I become nervous. It is often a sign of displaced blame and relinquished responsibilities. If “we” are in “partnership”, then responsibilities for subsequent failure are dispersed.

Delivering internet access, let alone broadband and the teaching and learning matrix required to enable information literacy, is a difficult task in Australia. The Labor government in the current election campaign is promising a boost to the National Broadband Network, the A$43 billion scheme providing cabling to Australian homes, stating that 93 per cent of households will receive fibre-optic coverage. The remaining 7 per cent will obtain wireless and satellite services.

This is a plan for a comprehensive broadband rollout. It has not happened. It may not happen. Significantly, the leader of the opposition has stated that if he wins office, the National Broadband Network would be stopped to reduce government debt.

There are consequences for such a decision. Regional inequalities in Australia trace over colonial and racial prejudices. What makes the Australian case unusual in the international literature on broadband rollout is that the nation’s wealth is based on resources, particularly iron ore, and these are locked in geographically isolated areas. In other words, there is a clear and obvious economic benefit to be gained by extending broadband rollout. If deep social divisions are not sufficient motivation to stop partnerships and planning and begin building and doing, then the economic benefits to be gained are glaringly obvious.

Instead of both sides of politics committing to high-quality information architecture, partnerships are proliferating. One example is the Australian chapter of Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop scheme. Titled One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Australia, it is a charity that aims to deliver laptops to children in remote regions, the overwhelming majority of whom are indigenous. Instead of this being a goal of national governments, it is left to a charity to provide this service. OLPC’s website is filled with images of under-dressed black children with under-brushed hair in the middle of the “bush” – or a stark desert or salt plain – holding a laptop. They look at the viewer with a combination of excitement and pleading that this opportunity be shared with others. There is something disconcerting about the controversial Negroponte scheme being rebadged as laptops “built for the bush”.

The XO laptop was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the ambitious goal of providing every child in every nation with a computer. But there is an assumption that a computer suitable for Angola will be appropriate for the Arnhem Land. Or, as Guido van Rossum, author of the Python computer programming language, stated: “I’ve thought for a while that sending laptops to developing countries is simply the 21st-century equivalent of sending Bibles to the colonies.” Ouch.

The OLPC Australia scheme continued this assumption that providing computers is the same as creating social justice, slipping between access and literacy: “we do not focus on computer literacy, as that is a by-product of the fluency children will gain through use of the laptop for learning”. Supposedly, access automatically generates understanding. Curriculum, training for teachers, professional development and appropriate assessment and updates are unnecessary considerations.

There are weaknesses in this scheme, but alternative trajectories are emerging. Crighton Nichols, the research and education manager of OLPC, is folding a post-colonial agenda into the project through his PhD candidature at the University of Sydney. His thesis topic is important far beyond the imperatives of his employer: to understand how indigenous communities design technological innovations that are valuable in and on their own terms. In other words, instead of imposing a generic “bush laptop” with pre-loaded software, the key (post-colonial) development will emerge – not from MIT – but from indigenous communities speaking, writing, designing, teaching and developing appropriate platforms for learning.

Australia is a rich nation. It has not suffered the excesses of the credit crunch as it is tethered to the Chinese economy as an enormous quarry for resources. This wealth is derived from regional and remote locations. Yet the infrastructure – for health and education as much as access to the internet – in these regions is inadequate.

Instead of addressing these wider concerns, XO laptops are delivered to remote schools. While the executive director of OLPC Australia, Rangan Srikhanta, has focused on private and corporate contributions to his charity, by May 2010 in the North West Telegraph he stated: “If you consider the money being spent on education in Australia, the purchase and provision of laptops for these children is not an unrealistic hope for government contribution.” In other words, his appeals to individuals and corporations have not attained the required outcome. While their target was the provision of 400,000 laptops to children in remote Australia, the actual delivery since January 2008 has been 1,200 XOs to 16 remote communities.

The gap in ambition, facilities and equipment between indigenous and non-indigenous, urban and remote Australians is not acceptable. The Finns would not be impressed. Obviously, Finland is 1/20th the size of Australia. But like Australia, there are sparsely populated areas and extreme temperatures. Relying on commercial interests in either place is not sufficient to guarantee broadband for all citizens.

A key difference is that Australia was colonised by the British, who labelled the continent “terra nullius”, uninhabited by people. Even within my parents’ lifetime, indigenous men and women did not have the right to vote, the right to equal wages, the right to drink alcohol or freedom of movement. When he was prime minister, Kevin Rudd finally applied a tourniquet to the gushing wound of indigenous history by apologising for the injustices and inequalities perpetuated in the name of colonisation, nation-building and progress, but his acrimonious removal by his own party created an abrupt end to this narrative of reconciliation. Instead, the new prime minister, Julia Gillard, and the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, have reclaimed the dog-whistle politics of previous governments. The focus has been on “stopping the boats” carrying asylum seekers.

It does not have to be this way. Think about Finland. How many more generations of settler, migrant and indigenous Australians must deny the reality that a redistribution of wealth, opportunity, education and (even) broadband is necessary to not only render the country socially just, but modern and defiantly post-colonial?

There is an example of such a commitment, vision and courage: C. Y. O’Connor, an Irish-born engineer. He designed and supervised the Perth to Kalgoorlie pipeline that carried water from the most isolated capital city in the world through to prosperous but arid and neglected goldfields. The project was a success, but at a great personal cost. O’Connor was attacked and ridiculed. Political leaders doubted the value of such an expansive public works goal. In despair, and before water gushed to the goldfields through his pipeline, O’Connor rode his horse into the ocean and committed suicide. May the Australian commitment to broadband not suffer a similar fate.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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