The Land of the Rising Net

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
7 August, 2018
Editorial: 229
Fecha de publicación original: 22 agosto, 2000

When you ask for something, make sure you ask for a lot

This summer’s big news event so far, apart from the tragedy of the nuclear submarine “Kursk”, took place in Maguncia, Germany, where a group of people, skilfully manipulated by the German government, managed to pay a billion and a half more than they were worth for six multimedia mobile telephone licences (UMTS). That’s what happens when you bid blindly. The six “winning” telecommunications groups forked out a total of more than 46,000 million dollars, almost 6.5% of Germany’s national debt. The results of this bid had immediate repercussions in Spain, where José Maria Aznar’s government awarded four of these licences to the tune of about 475 million dollars via a competition which was concluded with suspicious alacrity, nocturnal elections and inexplicable secrecy. While Europe congratulated itself on wild figures for the so-called “Internet mobile telephone”, it is not clear that, as many experts are now predicting, this will mark the difference in the end . The Japanese model, for example, has a different approach up its sleeve and one which is, for the moment, more suited to the opportunities the Net affords.

In the first place, nobody knows exactly what repercussions the enormous investment telecom operators will have to make will have on consumers. What will UMTS cost us to recoup these sums? Will rates be cheaper in Spain than in Germany? How will the contrary justify the enormous disparity in prices paid for these licences? Will calling on the vast investment in infrastructure which will be needed be enough to make us put up with yet another turn of the screw in prohibitive rates? These questions have yet to be answered and telecoms are keeping a not disinterested silence in this regard. One thing that is certain, however, is that the cost of connection will not be the 10/15 dollars per month of the i-Mode (information mode), the Japanese system that Jordi Bernat described in last week.

In the second place, while it is true that UMTS mobile telephones guarantee multimedia access to the Internet, it is also true that information systems of this type have not yet been developed and that no-one know how the hotch potch of languages that make up European cyberspace are going to be dealt with. But, more importantly, the European system puts telephone equipment manufacturers in the front line, in other words the Nokias, Ericssons and the like, who work in close association with the telecom operators. This will be the first time that the development of the Net will depend on how quickly a small group of corporations can get their equipment on to the market. It is as though the growth and development of the Net were to depend on a handful of computer manufacturers. This brings us to another notable difference with the Japanese model. DoCoMo, the NTT company that has developed the i-Mode, has gone for a “wireless Internet” solution without committing itself to any specific hardware such as the mobile phone. Quite the contrary in fact, their proposals for future development involve the country’s entire electronics industry. This decision suggests that we are going to see an unexpected and sudden resurgence in the “Land of the Rising Net”:

Japan, where Internet penetration so far has been nothing to write home about, has created 10 million new internauts in less than a year (almost triple that of Spain over the last five years) with a simple and elegant solution. DoCoMo has also, along the way, dynamited the idea of portals, which European telecom operators have invested so heavily in. These sort of super kiosks which spurted forth a fountain of information have been put out of sync by this blow. Labelled as “multi-access portals” to be accessed by computer, fixed and mobile telephones, TV, the multimedia, the WAP, etc., they have not been able to deal with information language according to the format and form needed in each case.

In the case of DoCoMo, one enters the i-Mode through the portal itself because it is always connected, communication is via packets and not circuits. The system offers everything and its services increase all the time whether they come as texts, graphics, photos, videos, games, music, cinema, etc. But most importantly, the apparatus is the least important. In fact, any electronic apparatus capable of communicating wirelessly can connect to the Internet. All of a sudden, the atmosphere, where radio waves operate, has become one of the most important players in the Information Society. Air is the medium. And we shouldn’t forget that Japan is, at the same time, the most important power in the electronic consumer business. This is what backs up the mobile phone: Japanese consultants estimate that over the next three years more than 360 million wireless gadgets capable of connecting to the Net will hit the market. From the most obvious, such as walkmans and electronic agendas of all kinds, to the most unexpected such as earrings, glasses, wallets, rings, ballpoint pens, etc. Each of them will receive a particular type of information, the most suited to the particular format, music in some cases, videos in others, text in others and in some all at the same time.

Thus while NTT-DoCoMo dictates to the equipment industry what users, that means us, want, here in Europe it is the equipment industry that tells us what we should be using and how. And when. Because, until the equipment is ready the Net will just have to wait for its deployment. In other words, Japan is going to put its entire consumer electronic industry to work to create new Internet habitats. While Europe, for its part, will wait until a fraction of its industry, the mobile telephone sector, is ready to offer us next generation Internet in the mobile phones they have to manufacture. The difference is a notable one and shows just how much we continue to think of the Net as a classical telephone infraestructure with email tagged on to it.

This is to a large extent the legacy of the big telecommunications monopolies which have made up the backbone of this industry in Europe. From one of its branches they are trying to raise up a leading electronics device manufacturing sector, fundamentally made up of mobile telephones, in a wild dream of regaining the lost glory of the last three decades. “The mobile phone is our great achievement” is the call that goes up from London to Brussels via Maguncia. But, it’s not that clear, ladies and gentlemen. It wouldn’t be at all strange if we flashed back to the 80s and 90s: another Japanese invasion of tiny electronic gadgets, all of them capable of connecting to the Internet but without losing their inveterate ubiquity and omnipresence at all. Are we creating yet another losing battle by putting the cart before the horse, telecommunications operators and their associated companies before the interests of the users of the Net?

Translation: Bridget King