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Tuesday, 16 October 2012 18:38

A new take on the digital divide


The Digital Divide has been hot political potato in Australia for years. Now the ITU has come up with a new way of measuring it that might just reveal it to be bigger than it's generally regarded.

The NBN is supposed to go a long way towards closing the digital divide between urban and rural Australia, between rich and poor but with around seven percent of the population denied the bandwidth of fibre to the home that divide will always exist.

Just how 'big' that divide is, and how significant it is are two quite different parameters and heavily dependent on how availability of digital services is measured.

For its just released 2012 'Measuring the Information Society' report report the ITU has come up with a quite different way of assessing the digital divide. When applied to developed and developing nations it shows that, far from having closed in recent years this digital divide is actually increasing - exponentially!

The ITU points out that most of the existing telecommunication/ICT indicators focus on the number of subscriptions to ICTs and the respective investments, costs or spending.

It argues that, while these indicators only provide rough approximations of the amount of bits and bytes exchanged worldwide through voice and data traffic over communication networks and it applies two new measures: subscribed communications capacity and effective communications capacity to measure the digital divide. On this basis, it says: "the divide is larger and growing exponentially when measured in terms of subscribed capacity."

The ITU has used a 'unifying metric' of bits per second to measure global technological capacity to community and to compare different technologies.

This is no easy task because there is no direct correlation between bits per second and capacity to communicate. For example, a mobile phone conversation is typically encoded at around 8.5Kbps while an average fixed line telephone conversation has a hardware performance or around 64kbps, but conveys no more information.

The ITU quotes analysis conducted by Hilbert and Lopez showing the average hardware capacity and the average information capacity for 30 different telecommunications technologies and a dozen broadcast technologies and from these estimates of subscribed communications capacity globally have been derived. Effective communications capacity is a measure of how much usage is made of this subscribed capacity.


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So, if we made a rough application of this to Australia and the NBN a large scale uptake of the higher speed 50 and 100Mbps options of the FTTH service would create a significant digital divide between the 93 percent FTTH areas and the seven percent limited to 12Mbps via wireless or satellite.

Cellular coverage is likely to be more uniform: greater distance from cell towers in rural areas is likely to be compensated by fewer users competing for the same capacity.

Effective usage is more difficult to make a rough guess at. However the ITU noted a digital divide between developed and developing nations widening exponentially on the basis of subscribed capacity, and there is already talk of the NBN's FTTH network being able to offer subscribers 1Gbps

(Remember back in August 2010 Tony Abbott claimed it was "utterly implausible" that the NBN could deliver 1Gbps to end users. Just days later - and nine days ahead of the Federal Election - NBN CEO Mike Quigley - delivering the Telecommunications Society's Charles Todd Lecture - revealed how the company had developed the network in order to be able to deliver that speed over fibre for no additional investment.)

The ITU's report made it quite clear that this new means of measuring the digital divide should be applied nationally as well as internationally, and it brought in also the dimension of income.

It said that, while subscriptions are more evenly distributed relative to population, subscribed telecommunication capacity is distributed along the lines of income inequality. "In this context, it is important to consider policies that address the capacity dimension of the digital divide, for example in national broadband plans."

That should give the Coalition something to think about if it gets the chance to revamp the NBN.

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