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The Global Telecommunication Infrastructure

The Global Telecommunication Infrastructure
and the Information Society

Keynote Address by Mr. Jean Jipguep,
Chairman, ITU TELECOM Board,
International Telecommunication Union

Views of what the GII may be

The theme of INET '95, "The Internet: Towards a Global Information Infrastructure" might suggest the view that the GII will be an extrapolation of the Internet. Many of you in this room may make the assumption that the Internet is the prototype of the Global Information Infrastructure. However, there are as many views of what the Global Information Infrastructure (GII) might be as there are segments of the information and communication industry. These views will include:

These three visions of what the Global Information Infrastructure will be come from different perspectives on what the GII will be used for. Differing views of how the GII will be built include:

With modern technology a single network of networks will accommodate each of these different views. This single network will be digital. The process of digitization began in the computer industry, it is already well-advanced in the telecommunication industry and it is now spreading to the broadcasting sector. As the three sectors converge, it will become increasingly difficult, and unnecessary, to distinguish between the different parts of the bit business. Information should, in theory, be able to flow from any source to any destination providing the network is digital, and providing the addressing scheme is universal.

Compared to the 640 million telephone subscribers or the 1.2 billion televisions, the Internet with an estimated 30-40 million users is just a small part of the telecommunication world. And the Internet is not really the infrastructure. "Infra" is from the Latin word meaning under. What underlies the Internet - and many other private and public networks - is the massive public transmission network, or network "plumbing," including a vast fiber network. By "public" I do not mean government or PTT, only that its use is open to whomever is willing to pay for the services used. The majority of this capacity belongs to private or partially privatised firms.

Switching or network routing functions might also be considered part of the infrastructure. The common network infrastructure which can accommodate the different applications, including computer internetworking is - and will have to continue to be - built according to underlying standards which meet broad needs. The infrastructure standards will have to reflect the requirements of the diverse applications. The GII itself will be a "network of networks" that will evolve out of existing technologies and services, just as communications has always done.

Principles for the GII

ITU's responsibilities go beyond the purely technical to encompass the political and economic domains in so far as they deal with promotion of the use of telecommunications, and ITU offers a forum for the exploration of all aspects of telecommunications policy. It is not surprising therefore, that United States Vice President Al Gore chose ITU's World Telecommunication Development Conference in Buenos Aires last year as the setting to propose that the nations of the world should cooperate in building the Global Information Infrastructure, or GII, founded on the same principles as the American "National Information Infrastructure", or NII.

The G-7 Information Society Conference was held this past February in Brussels and hosted by the European Commission. The core principles identified in the G7 vision of the Global Information Society correspond also to ITU's vision of the global telecommunications future. They were foreshadowed in a talk by ITU Secretary-General Dr. Pekka Tarjanne last year at the Networked Economy Conference in Paris, 10 March 1994. These principles, as stated in the conclusions of the G7 summit "Information Society Conference" are:


Telecommunication Infrastructure and Information Superstructure

The Global Information Infrastructure is the focus of discussion, but a useful distinction can be made between the Global Telecommunication Infrastructure and the Global Information Superstructure. A great deal is said about the Global Information Infrastructure. Political leaders tend to focus on infrastructure. They are interested in the tangible benefits of road building; whether for moving Roman legions rapidly, enabling interstate commerce, or creating a global electronic market. But the superstructure should be at least as important as the infrastructure. The superstructure is the services: applications (like the World Wide Web) and the contents they give access to. It is also the culture which arises from use of new ways of sharing information and ideas. The contribution of Internet to the Information Superstructure has been most remarkable: pioneering new ways of using Information Technology to create a global information society. Behaviours enabled and rewarded in the Internet environment are information discovery which requires an active role on the part of the discoverer, and exchange of ideas among individuals - whether one person to one person messaging, or one to many via a mailing list.

The Internet culture is not the only model for the culture of the GII. Video on demand (VoD) allows users to select their choice of programmes from a large library. Interactive video on demand (IVoD) allows the user to control the chosen programme as he would with a video cassette player, including exact start-time, playback, pause and rewind. VoD and interactive entertainment are frequently cited as the applications which will provide a wide revenue base for the GII.

These applications do not involve the kind of human-to-human interaction which typifies Internet culture. We might fear that virtually limitless video-on-demand would encourage a couch potato culture of passive entertainment consumers. Certainly this is one kind of behaviour which we will see. I expect most of us will indulge in it at least sometimes. But the same technology that will put every StarTrek episode ever made within reach of a few clicks of your set-top device, will also give you access to educational resources beyond those available on even the finest university campus today. Imagine a virtual university where the best lecturers in the world are on tap at the moment you are ready to concentrate on learning.

I don't think anybody today is really well aware of what will be the preferred applications of the GII in the future. Certainly I am not - and so I would be happy to hear any of your views of what they might be. We can be sure that what there will be 5 or maximum 10 years from now, will be different from what we know today. Nonetheless, it is the changes being made now in the telecommunication infrastructure which will make many of the future's information superstructure initiatives possible.

Networking culture and society

H. A. Innis, one of the seminal thinkers on communications, proposed in Bias of Communications that civilizations are characterized by preoccupation with either time or space and that this focus on one or the other reflects the dominant medium. Innis contrasted the long-lasting, but difficult-to-transport clay tablets of the Babylonians with the shorter-lived, but readily portable papyrus of Egyptian and Greek civilizations.

The Internet and the evolving GII are probably the first media to dominate both space and time. While modern broadcasting, especially with Broadcast Satellite Services, has spatial expanse never previously achieved, it is the combination of computer-based memory - digital archives that include the Bible, Koran, and Shakespeare as well as the latest research results in virtually every academic field - and globe-spanning networks which makes possible the simultaneous great reach in space and time. This new capability of universally sharing historical memory and current knowledge will be the factor which qualitatively distinguishes the civilization of the GII from preceding ones.

We can imagine some of the possible benefits of this new medium:

This should not be viewed as homogenization in a single global culture, but rather as a means for all people to sample and learn about the different cultures of the world. It should also enable people anywhere to make their viewpoints widely known. With so many people expressing themselves, the Internet, even with its present relatively small population of 30-40 million, resembles the clamour of a crowded bazaar. Each of us has to learn his own techniques for sorting out the voices to which he wants to listen. We should be careful that the techniques which we chose do not leave us listening only to those who think the way we do and who come from our particular culture.

There will also be a meta-culture of the Net. INET 95 registrants come from 110 countries, and share a common electronic culture, while each of you retains roots in your national and ethnic cultures. Today's tools on the net make it possible to reinforce and promote your particular cultures without threatening other cultures. The freedoms which characterise the Net make any attempt to exclude any particular culture or viewpoint impossible. These freedoms are not inherent. They stem from the absence of centralized control. Nobody says "We hold these rights to be self-evident." It is simply due to the lack of any enforcement mechanism or digi-police to limit options. Yet certainly there are governments which will be uncomfortable with the liberty which the Net offers.

We celebrate the effect of modern telecommunications in creating a "global village" with the potential for events occurring anywhere to be reported everywhere and for all sorts of information: knowledge, research results, educational resources, news, literature, "films" to be shared via the global information infrastructure. At the same time, we must realize that unfortunately, but inevitably, this same infrastructure can serve to propagate distasteful, indecent, or immoral material such as pornography and racist hate propaganda. As we can see from current legislative initiatives in the United States, this kind of abuse of the GII might lead to imposition of contents controls on the Net.

The global electronic village is composed of peoples with differing cultures and values. The governments of individual nations legislate against diffusion of material which they deem to be immoral, blasphemous, or otherwise pernicious. The criteria by which these judgments are made vary widely. There is international agreement that nations have the authority to stop certain telecommunications. The Constitution of the International Telecommunication Union states that "Members ... reserve the right to cut off any ... private telecommunications which may appear dangerous to the security of the State or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency."

Technology now makes it relatively easy to circumvent national restrictions by connecting to services in other countries - whether on the Internet, via plain old telephone service, or by putting up a satellite antenna. Effectively, this poses a problem; one for which there is no easy solution.

ITU's members, the nations of the world, have never accorded the Union any authority concerning the contents of communications. Although ITU offers a forum for the exploration of all sorts of international communications policy questions, I cannot imagine an active or institutional role for the Union in controlling communications contents.

While it is possible to have international agreement concerning, for example, the priority of telecommunications concerning safety of life (which is established by the ITU Regulations) there is not likely to be international agreement about what communications should be forbidden. Past efforts to codify acceptable information contents on an international basis, such as UNESCO's New World Information Order, have revealed how deep are the fundamental divergences among countries and cultures in dealing with these issues. I do not believe that an International Digi-Police is the answer to transborder flows of material which is acceptable in its place of origin, but not in the destination. But we must recognize that this dilemma is likely to affect political constraints on tomorrow's GII.

The Internet today is characterized by Freedom

The Internet today is characterized by Freedom:

Freedom does not mean free of charge. Contrary to a common misconception, the Internet is not a free resource funded by governments. While there are some countries which substantially subsidize networks for academic use, the greatest growth in Internet usage is for services which are provided on a commercial basis. Subsidization may make sense to jump-start networks in countries which lack a critical mass of working networks to provide services at reasonable cost. There is a need for governments and telecommunications service providers to recognize the development benefits of Internet, and consequently to make leased lines available at reasonable cost. The growth of telecommunications usage which this can stimulate is beneficial indirectly for economies, and directly for Telecommunication Service Providers.

The recent geometric growth of the Internet and the associated explosion in the availability of information demonstrates the virtuous circle in which expansion of the infrastructure stimulates expansion of the superstructure. It is clear that this can be vitally important for economic growth, fostering democracy, and promoting an exchange of ideas and knowledge of other cultures which favours peace. This is beneficial not only in developed countries, but is of crucial importance for developing countries. The mutual reinforcement of telecommunication infrastructure extension and information superstructure availability is one factor which can limit the growing disparity between information/communication haves and have-nots.

This is an area where the developed world has a responsibility to share knowledge and resources so as to favour network implementations in the developing countries where policies to encourage local Internet and related initiatives must be adopted. The enthusiastic response to the developing country workshop which preceded INET95 is a very positive sign both of ISOC's and the entire Internet community's consciousness of its responsibilities - global social consciousness - and of the growing realization in countries all over the world that being connected to Internet is vital.

The African Regional Symposium on Telematics for Development took place in Addis Ababa from 3 to 7 April, 1995 to address key issues concerning telematics -- the convergence of computing, telecommunications and broadcast technologies. Extension of the Internet as a tool for development was one of the major preoccupations of the 250 participating government policy makers, post and telecommunications officials, system operators, equipment suppliers, non-governmental organisations, educational institutions, users and donors. Among their conclusions were:

What has been happening with the Internet is pioneering of new ways of using Information Technology to create a global information culture. This global culture is inclusive, allowing multi-cultural inputs, rather than being selective or directive as are broadcast media which are dominated by certain content sources. Of course, the Internet tools presently do filter out some cultures because of limitations in their support for all languages and character sets. Regardless of whether the Global Information Infrastructure is, or is not, a direct outgrowth of the big-I Internet, what you in this room and your confreres on the Net do will establish many of the paradigms for networked information exchange.

Networked Information Exchange. I don't really know of a word for it. We speak of the casual consumer of information "surfing the net," or of the intrepid explorer who is sometimes called an "Internaut," but what can we call the process itself? This sort of electronic open-air market, or agora? Agora, the ancient Greek word for a marketplace used as a gathering place by the populace, seems to be a popular metaphor for networked information exchange. Agora is used as the name for an Italian Internet service provider, a World-Wide Web e-mail browser, and at least three other services on the Web! Whatever name one might use for it, this rapid-access information exchange place has been one of the significant contributions of the Internet.

When we examine the relations between the technology and the information exchange phenomenon we find that, oddly enough, the most exciting developments in information sharing have bypassed the Internet's own standardization process: Gopher and World Wide Web both were independent achievements, although they rely upon the connectivity services of the Internet. Now, post facto, there is a standardization process for WWW, although it is being treated rather exceptionally.

A non-standard application on top of a standardized medium is not unique to the Internet, but has probably spread so quickly because economic barriers are minimal. The practice of making software freely available contributes enormously, as does the fact that institutions don't face immediate direct incremental costs for new uses of communications resources.

Can this kind of dynamic be maintained in the GII? It is easy to imagine that the mainstream high-bandwidth applications will be video-oriented with a purely commercial basis. But I think it likely that there will always be a sort of Frontier Internet, where the ferment of new ideas brews best, while other networks cater to the more market-driven mass of usage of what will by then be "conventional multimedia."

Undoubtedly the Internet will continue to have a great deal of influence and will evolve as today's Internet finds its place - or places - in the networks which will together make up the GII. The theme "The Internet: Towards a Global Information Infrastructure" is a challenge to retain the character of the Internet in the evolution of a GII where the information superstructure will be more important than the infrastructure.

Having consulted the INET 95 program on the inet web server, I know that an interesting program lies ahead for participants, so allow me to wish each of you a very stimulating and enjoyable conference. I hope to see many of you in Geneva at TELECOM 95 this October.