To Lisbon via La Mancha

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
5 June, 2018
Editorial: 208
Fecha de publicación original: 28 marzo, 2000

Those that leave the road for the side path think they they are advancing,
but they are really taking the long way round.

The European Union’s Lisbon summit has focused more than ever before on information technology. EU leaders, apparently tired of repeatedly hearing, particularly in their Gross National Products and balance of payments reports, that the US has a substantial advantage over Europe as regards Net development, with the undoubted and, perhaps unattainable economic repercussions this entails, have thrown their support behind massive development of the Internet. Or at least that is what the headlines coming out of the conference are saying. The programme approved in the Portuguese capital comes stuffed with gifts which (because of the delay) would have been more appropriate a couple of Christmases ago. The deal is that European schools will have access to the Internet next year and, by the year 2003, all Europeans will access public services this way. Meantime, in Albacete the same week, those of us gathered together under the auspices of the Consejo Económico y Social de Castilla-La Mancha for the “Conference on the Information Society and the Media” discovered that, as its president, Antonio Pina Martínez, put it, “one thing is hearing the doorbell ring, the other is getting up to answer it”.

As is often the case at these meetings, conversations in the corridors at this conference were more interesting than the speeches themselves. Amongst those attending were people from different villages and towns in Castilla-La Mancha, genuinely concerned about the way things are going in the Information Society and the way this will affect them. The region is amongst those that least use information technology in Spain (already trailing behind the rest of Europe). Businesses there have hardly even begun to move into cyberspace and public centres have not addressed the urgent matter of “cultural reconversion” to make the occupation of virtual spaces possible and, more than anything else, infrastructures –and this really means Telefonica– are not exactly making it easy for people to swarm into the Internet en masse.

The picture is a simple one: telecommunications operators are not interested in investing in wide-band in small towns without large scale economies. This, as various authorities in the region said, is the norm in Castilla-La Mancha. As Cervantes told us so long ago, the area is very large and the towns and cities very small (Albacete, with 160,000 inhabitants is the only city in all Castilla-La Mancha with cable operators). Just a glance at the map is enough to give one a clear idea of the dimensions of the “social exclusion” suffered by the region in this Internet era, dominated as it is by neo-liberal criteria (precisely the kind approved in Lisbon) which determine the penetration of the Information Society.

“What’s going to happen to us? Will we be left out of this revolution altogether? Have we nothing to offer or get from it? Should we just resign ourselves to the fact that we will remain marginalised from the economy of the future?” These were some of the questions a business man from the area asked some of the Telefónica representatives present at the Conference. The answer was always the same. It is, in fact, the official company line, “We are not the only ones who should be investing. There are also other operators.” What they failed to point out is that the rest do not have access to the local loop, the part that reaches users, where Telefónica continues to maintain a stranglehold. And it is in this bottleneck that most of the problems highlighted by European ministers at the Portuguese summit, condense. There is no broadband there, access is expensive, the flat rate an empty promise and users that decide to face the risk find themselves bound hand and foot by the limitations of their access and the risks of indecipherable telephone accounts.

Despite the fact that this state of affairs does not exactly augur a triumphal future –some EU leaders allowed themselves the luxury of getting carried away with talk of the “new economy”– these Castillians are determined not to be left behind, with or without the operators concerned. In Albacete I again saw evidence of the seeds of the Personal Internet Service Operators (PISO) we talked about last week. In addition to the experience in Extremadura, some of the small towns and cities in the province of Ciudad Real with an interesting upsurge in population, are beginning to dream with their feet firmly planted on the ground. Local cable television companies, in conjunction with town councils, are on the hunt for financing from the EU, the central government, the autonomous government and private business in order to create consortiums that will replace present coaxial lines with optical fibre cable directly into users’ homes.

In this way they could not only provide entire towns with the Internet, but also become telephone operators themselves, thereby ending the hegemony that Telefónica, and corporations related to them, have enjoyed up till now. As one of these new entrepreneurs said, “If these projects take hold, telephone operators like them will suddenly lose their clientele in entire cities and towns overnight”. Which puts an interesting perspective on the role these companies will play in the Information Society since up to now their presence and power has been based on maintaining and increasing their lists of clients.

On the other hand, the potential of these intranets in small cities and towns is self-evident. While in some places in the geography of cyberspace it is business to business electronic commerce that has taken off as flag bearer of the global, in these other areas it will be consumers who will define the nature –and form– of local electronic commerce. Their needs, as the orientation of these projects illustrates and from what the people concerned themselves actually have to say, have very little to do with many of the brilliant ideas about electronic commerce that proliferate on the Net while not taking how users will participate and intervene in them into account. This is its definitive feature and there is nothing like it on any other market. It dissolves paternalism like a sugar cube in the rain. Let’s hope that the EU also understands this aspect of the Net, although I’m afraid that predominant talk in Lisbon was impregnated with loads of disturbing references to “management”, very much in line with the neo-liberal dialect.