Thursday, 15 October 2009

Radicalism a la Finland: Governing Broadband Access

Mark the date 10/14/09: Finland made history in broadband access. This is how the Finnish Broadcasting Company told the news in its website:

Starting next July, every person in Finland will have the right to a one-megabit broadband connection, says the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Finland is the world's first country to create laws guaranteeing broadband access.

The government had already decided to make a 100 Mb broadband connection a legal right by the end of 2015. On Wednesday, the Ministry announced the new goal as an intermediary step.

Some variation will be allowed, if connectivity can be arranged through mobile phone networks. 

This is a radical step, at least as in: the first in the world. However, to put things in context:

According to a recent poll by Statistics Finland, 82% of all Finns had used the Internet in the researched 3 month period last Spring. In that tiny country of 5.3 inhabitants 70% of Finnish households have already a broadband access

[A comparison to my other home country: According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in Spring 2009 63% of adult Americans had broadband access at home. This means a 15% increase from 2008. ]

But it should be noted that the Finns have had their visions about Internet connectivity long before one could even dream about something like the Obama administration & FCC's national plan that is in the making. Finland has been busy since mid 1990s with creating national strategies to ensure it position as a leading 'Information Society'. The first action plan was envisioned in 1995, followed by one in 1998, and another in 2007. The latest plan exceeds until 2015 and had initially included  the 100 Mb vision cited above.   

A great research topic: How did the 2015/100Mb plan -- and now the speeded-up version of 2010/1 Mb law -- come about; how did the argumentation pro/con manifest and the policy-making process unfold? Prof. Phil Napoli, a colleague and mentor from Fordham University, and I will look into that in the near future.

However, the topic has spinoffs: when online, searching information in English  about the novel landmark law, I encountered quite interesting approaches to this piece of news. Alone the pictures used in some of the news items would make a fun cultural analysis of the Brand Finland and free image banks (a medieval castle in Turku in winter; a lake and red wooden cottages on a summer's day). 

But it was fascinating to read how different sources commented this act of Finnish radicalism. Here are some samples:

CNN had made a story out of it and interviewed a legislative counsellor of the Ministry of Communication, a certain Ms. Laura Vilkkonen. Bless her soul for saying this, plain and simple: "Universal service is every citizen's subjective right."  CNN also noted how Finnish are in accordance to the UN view of Internet access as human rights.

The story in the Guardian started with a slightly negative tone (the Ministry 'pushed' through the law that will 'force' telecoms to offer high speed access) but really focused on the reasons for such decision (sparsely populated country, business opportunities) as compared to the UK where the issue is a very concrete digital divide between those who're ITC savvy and those who never go online.

It was not so much the short news item but the related heated comments that, admittedly, startled me when reading Business Week's take on the matter. How about these world views:

Rainer: (...) It's just like needing a car to get to work. If you don't have one, you move to a place that's close to work, or has access to public transportation. Would you have the government of Finland also state that everyone has a right to a car? (...)

Mike J: (...) Welcome to "Robin Hood" socialism where we steal from the rich (who pay the majority of taxes) and give to the poor (who don't pay taxes or pay much less of a percentage). Then when the rich have no money left, their employees will get laid off and the government will have not have a money source. (...)

Dave: (...) There are only three ways that the Finnish government can guarantee this right to all of its people. They can:

A)Use the threat of force to mandate ISPs to provide service to all of its people without being paid (aka slavery)

B)Use the threat of force to mandate that all Finn's must pay some type of tax to subsidize internet service to all people whether they want to or not (aka slavery)

C)A mix of the two via some type of scheme of forcing people into plans, price capping and subsidies (aka slavery)

Whichever of these three paths they take, the Finn's are putting a gun to the head's of innocent vicitms in their own citizenry and forcing them to provide this service to its people. (...)

OK. We all know how online commentaries may sometimes be in style and way of argumentation. And the thread included positive feedback to the Finnish policy-makers, as well.  

Still... perhaps most interesting observation for me, as a Finn, was how relatively little attention the law  received in Finnish online media. One way to look at it is that we are too jaded with our Info Soc and other social/cultural/industrial policies that characterise a social welfare state, so we don't see what kind of radicalism this decision signifies to some audiences, countries... To be sure, there exist claims and increasing evidence of dismantling several aspects of that welfare society -- as we've known it in the past. 

But the Finnish decision on broadband access is radical in its 'old-fashioned' approach:  it views Finnish citizens as, well, citizens, even in the context of the new networked information economy. 

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