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Broadband for Regional Survival and Growth: Background and First Steps

By Lars Hornborg

The National Perspective

In every part of Sweden, Broadband to the People is a hot discussion topic. It's not a simple issue, given the different views expressed by Sweden's various political parties. These range from advocacy of government-financed mass deployment of fiber-optic Internet to every household, to a hands-off stance where the market is expected to solve everybody's needs without government intervention.

The political weight of this issue stems from the fact that Sweden, unlike countries in Continental Europe, has an extremely varying population structure. As in neighboring Norway and Finland, the main part of the country is virtually uninhabited. A nighttime satellite photo of Europe shows this very clearly—while Continental Europe is fairly well lit, most of Scandinavia is dark, with blazing points of illumination around the few large cities in each country. Because of this, Swedes can’t count on the market to supply the country’s needs in this matter. While they do a good job in the cities, ISPs and telecom companies don’t have much of a presence in the countryside. This is natural and to be expected, given the sparse population and long distances in these areas. There just isn’t enough profit potential outside the cities.

In 1998 Sweden’s Ministry of Industry recognized that we were heading into a situation that needed attention. Officials therefore commissioned an investigation—Broadband for Growth in the Entire Country—headed by county council director Jan Grönlund.

Reluctant Government

The report was published by mid-1999. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to its title. The few recommendations that could be found had a clear city focus, further increasing the cities’ lead over the countryside on the journey toward the information society. During this period, the Federation of Swedish Industries petitioned the government for active measures to ensure general availability of broadband access. The government’s reply was that this was and should remain an issue for the market—a case of reversed roles, in other words. Normally, the federation has strong views whenever the social democratic government intervenes in areas where entrepreneurs could be expected to create a functioning market; now, they were asking for intervention and aid but not getting it.

It rapidly became clear that the government intended to maintain a very low profile on this issue despite obvious implications for Sweden as a nation. This led to a lot of discussion and speculation. What was holding back the government? Figures presented in the report indicated that a mass deployment of optic fiber and high-speed Internet access to every company and household would require investments of 80 billion SEK (US$ 9 billion) during a 20-year period. While a large figure, the money apparently was not the problem, given Prime Minister Persson’s statement in late 1999 that with a long enough write-off, it felt like a reasonable investment. What was lacking was a model and a method.

Conflicting Interests

The ongoing negotiations between Swedish telecom operator Telia and its Norwegian counterpart Telenor also probably affected the situation—in more ways than one. Had the government decided to push broadband deployment aggressively, the value of Telia would have been affected seriously. Telia is state owned, and theowner role is handled by the Ministry of Industry, which also commissi oned the investigation. Thus, conflicting interests inside the ministry in all likelihood had an inhibiting effect on its will and power to act decisively.

Regional Development and Survival

Meanwhile, in sparsely populated regions like Kronoberg County (population 180,000, area 8,500 square km), we had to decide how long to wait for something to happen. It was becoming increasingly apparent that one of a handful of key factors affecting the future of Kronoberg is broadband access to the rest of the world. There are multiple reasons for this, among them, the ability to communicate freely is rapidly becoming a competitive factor for companies; access to the Internet is becoming important to citizens; and education, entertainment, and health care are examples of areas that can benefit enormously from an underlying information technology (IT) infrastructure.

All parts of Sweden are struggling to become king of the IT mountain. If we lag in Kronoberg, companies and qualified people will move to other regions that have achieved more.

In a county with an average of 21 inhabitants per square kilometer, the market was not going to solve our needs in the short term. In other words, we couldn’t just sit back and wait for something to happen. Instead, regional IT development organization IT Kronoberg, where I am project coordinator, decided to commission its own study. This was done during the summer of 1999. At that time, many politicians and decision makers had yet to realize that IT infrastructure first and foremost is a development and planning issue that affects local and regional survival and prosperity. A common view was that issues related to IT should be handled by technicians and experts. Therefore, an important task was to move the discussion up to a political level. Crucial in achieving this were the format, language, and conclusions in the report of the Kronoberg study. By focusing on alternative scenarios and probable consequences, we eventually were able to supply the decision makers with data and reasoning that they could understand and to which they could relate. Suddenly, it was possible for them to discuss broadband access in the same way that traditional infrastructure such as roads, railways, and seaports has been discussed during all phases of the industrial society.

IT Kronoberg arranged a county hearing on IT infrastructure in late October 1999. Approximately 100 people participated—a good figure for this type of event. Among these were politicians, entrepreneurs, educators, and, notably, several people representing village councils. A large majority demanded decisive action on a county level, now that the government’s lack of initiative had become apparent.

The Broadband Taskforce

More than 20 of the participants at the hearing decided to play an active part in the work to come. We convened a couple of weeks later for the first meeting of the Broadband Taskforce (BT). Our common objective was to achieve broadband
access for the whole county regardless of location.

Given the diversity of the group—including municipal representatives, ISPs, village council people, telecom operators, and consumers—our first task was to formulate a common starting point and a shared view of the situation. This proved to be relatively easy. Two key sentences summed it up:
  • We view access to broadband Internet communications as a prerequisite for active participation in the information society.
  • We want to collaborate with existing commercial players to achieve a regionwide solution.

The next step was to define an action list for the BT. What type of data should we collect and compile? What technical considerations should be taken into account? What kind of further consequential analysis was required? What facts were still missing?

We quickly agreed that any kind of models and recommendations would be of relatively little value without an accurate and updated picture of existing infrastructure in the region. We had heard from other regional projects that compiling such a picture could be a daunting task, given the reluctance on the part of many telecom operators and ISPs to unveil their respective networks. Despite this, we decided to try. With the aid of GIS expertise employed by the county administrative board, we collected digital map data describing various types of infrastructure, including radio towers and optic fiber and telecommunications networks. Thanks to an exceptionally good discussion climate in the BT, we got the data we needed from all parties.

The result was impressive. It had an enormous effect on our approach in the continued work. In my next article, I’ll explain why, what it led to, and where we’re currently headed.

About the Author, Lars Hornborg

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