Waiting for my PISO

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
5 June, 2018
Editorial: 207
Fecha de publicación original: 21 marzo, 2000

No day passes without some grief

The predominant role of telecommunication operators in the “new economy” is so overpowering at the moment that it is difficult to imagine the virtual landscape without them. The enormous investment of companies such as Telefonica, Deutsche Telekom, British Telecom, ATT, MCI or Worldcom, to name but a few, in buying up Net companies and services, the way they are vertically structuring the Internet market (operator – Internet Service Provider – portal – services based on e-commerce – general information services – etc.) and their predominance as far as tariff setting for Internet access goes, puts them at the front line of everything to do with cyberspace. Or, at least that is the what it looks like at the moment. The question, however, is how long this will last. If the Internet allows for more and more personalised and individualised services, isn’t it logical that the same should happen to infrastructure? Shouldn’t we reach a point where individuals have their own operators, something like a Personal Internet Operating Service (PISO)

The present appetite for big numbers on the part of the telecommunications corporations is preventing us from seeing the other side of the picture on the Net. Nevertheless, we can just make out what the future will be like somewhere out there on the horizon. Despite the spectacular changes we have witnessed over the last four or five years, we haven’t even begun to really imagine the more significant modifications in industrial structure that the Internet promises yet. In the midst of all this turbulence it might sound like shooting one’s mouth off to say that the days of the large telecom operators are numbered, but if I were them I wouldn’t laugh too loud just in case.

Over the last few years, more than one telecommunications leader has been heard to say that, “The Net is ours and we’re going to build our new business in it.” Rushing into it in blind faith soon afterwards. At the beginning, their policy decisions were made on the basis that the Net belonged to them and that it was their own private hunting ground. After initial disappointments, they proceeded to buy up everything within reach but failed to noticeably improve their own networks. And, why not? Well, for the simple reason that, with very few exceptions, these corporations make a living from the networks inherited from another era, the telephone era. To their surprise, they found that their networks played a complimentary role which was essential to the development of the Internet. But they still haven’t got to grips with the infrastructure of the Net itself yet. And there is no indication that they will be able to do this in time or that they have the strategic resources for maintaining their present leading role.

For the moment, they continue to operate on the basis of telephone age logic: the more lines one has, the more clients, and vice versa. This simple equation fills the coffers. However, the services that these lines provide are very different to those of the future. They act fundamentally as intermediaries: allowing two people who pick up a telephone connected to the network to speak to each other. The Internet has changed the rules of the game. Just being an intermediary is not enough, now you need to provide services that clients can adapt to their own needs. And there are not many networks that have responded to these new demands. This is not really surprising either. Since these networks do not have to be enormous, nor require large investment, they are consequently not very appetising to big operators. In a tentative attempt to fill this gap, which even the International Telecommunications Union has mentioned, cable operators have begun to appear. Restricted to clearly delineated territories, these new telecommunications companies, influenced perhaps by the force of complimentary networks in the hands of the “ex-monopolies”, have generally not managed to design their business on the basis of Net services and have, in the end, succumbed to the rules of a market which is very fond of large investment aimed at long lists of clients. Meanwhile, the territorial pie has become a mixture of ingredients with the arrival of new mobile telephone operators by radio with promising wide band transmission.

Nevertheless, almost all they offer is directed at the “creamiest” sectors of the market, at those with the potential to guarantee the profitability of these markets. Which just leads us back to the same criteria again. What about those who don’t have sufficient infrastructure, or don’t represent the figures that large scale markets demand or that, for the meantime anyway, have yet to discover the commercial potential of their Net activities? Either they are marginalised from the process of globalisation or demonstrate that they are the main players in this process. Here are a couple of examples that show that the Internet is opening up new areas in the field of info-structures. In Stockholm and Extremadura.

The Stockholm City Council has decided to invest a tidy sum in a “unique project”: connecting the suburb of Kista, one of its most densely populated outlying suburbs with a university, via the Net. The idea is a simple one: to take fibre optics into every home –not just to the front door– and thereby convert every home into its own Net operator. The project is being designed by the Royal Institute of Technology, a Stockholm-based polytechnic, and the people of Kista themselves. The aim is to do things with other people in the same place at the same time, online. The Swedish telephone operator is not interested in the project: it’s too small and they don’t think it is worth the investment needed to take wide band to such an insignificant number of people. Consequently, the people themselves have invested in the infrastructure. Property owners have formed an organisation to finance the installation of the data “tap” to every home just as though it were the water and electricity supply one expects when renting or buying a house.

The people of Kista, on the other hand, have formed various committees to investigate their needs and decide the consequent dimensions of the network. Björn Pehrson, in charge of transmitting these demands to the polytechnic where the info-structure will be designed, told me jokingly a few weeks ago, “Give me a piece of cable and I’ll create a world”. And that is exactly what is happening in Kista, where domestic access is making a new kind of operator emerge, one that is much closer to the needs of each household, each inhabitant in the area.

The other case has been promoted by the Junta de Extremadura (the Extremadura regional government). It all started in the Cultural Centre of Pinofranqueado, a small town in the Hurdes area, immortalised by Buñuel in his film “Tierra sin pan” which showed the poverty-stricken conditions of its inhabitants. Today, however, contrary to being isolated from cyberspace as one would assume, it has become the driving force in a region where one million people, with very little power of acquisition, are scattered over 45.000 square kilometres. For the moment the Junta is offering the big operators all the advantages possible if they install an intranet in the area over the next 18 months. The consultants of these companies think that it is not a worthwhile project and that more compensation is necessary. But what is really necessary is the link between local research centres, the Junta investment and organising people and cities in order to measure their demands. Once this has been done, a “telecom operator” on a scale capable of dealing with the project and putting Las Hurdes at the forefront of citzen-based initiatives in Spain, is bound to appear. Or, what amounts to the same thing, bringing the inhabitants closer to having their own respective PISO’s.

Translation: Bridget King