Saturday, March 01, 2008

Japanese super-fast Internet and the digital divide

Few days ago the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries launched a rocket carrying a satellite aimed to test new technology promising to deliver super high-speed Internet service to homes and businesses around the world. First we have to see whether the experiment is successful, but if it succeeds, users will be able to use Internet at speeds of up to 1.2 Gb per second by connecting to it through a small dish. Although initially the service will focus on the Asia-Pacific region near Japan, JAXA says that the “ultra-fast satellite-based Internet-based communications will remove the so-called digital divide by providing high-speed Internet service in areas where the terrestrial communications infrastructure is poor”. But is it that simple? From the strict technological deployment point of view, the removal of the digital divide would depend on the price of the service more than on it availability, and it could be argued that a better use of the existent mobile and wireless technology would do more to bridge the digital divide than revolutionary technologies. The issue is to create content adapted to the existing mobile phones, which already have a great level of penetration in developing countries and in the poor of those countries, and those levels are still rising. So, quoting Andres, “It's the content, stupid!”, which takes us to the hurdle that will remain preventing poor people from making proper use of digital technologies and being full participants of the information society: the expansion of the rights embedded into the so-called intellectual property. While the new satellite would have the potential to provide access to digital content in remote and poor areas, the current very unbalanced intellectual property rights will make sure that the inhabitants of those areas cannot make use of that potential due to not being able to afford the licensing fees and the constant erosion of the rights to use content without previous authorization. So, while a technology like the satellite-based wideband could help bridging the digital divide, within the current IP rights context it will probably exacerbate it by creating a new way for those that can afford it to get more and better quality content whereas the poor and the marginalized will be left out and further from the current technology and content. Interestingly enough, Japan is one of the countries that usually support the aforementioned IP rights expansion and enforcement, policy that contradicts the stated aims of this rocket launch…

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