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JILT 1997 (3) - Dwayne Winseck

Thomas F. Baldwin, D. Stevens McVoy and Charles Steinfield's

Convergence:

Integrating Media, Information and Communication

Sage Publications, 1996, £22
427 pp, ISBN: 0 8039 5905 2

Reviewed by
Dwayne Winseck
Leicester University
DW11@leicester.ac.uk

Contents
1. Introduction
2. Economic Issues
3. Analysis

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This is a Book Review published on 31 October 1997.

Citation:Winseck D, 'Thomas F. Baldwin et al, Convergence: Integrating Media, Information and Communication', Book Review, 1997 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/bookrev/97_3wins/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1997_3/winseck/>


1. Introduction

I read Convergence about a year ago after it first came out and once again for the purposes of this review. I found the book to be informative, accessibly written and enjoyable on both occasions, although I was left with certain reservations that I will discuss in the latter half of this review.

One of the best aspects of the book is the clarity with which it introduces contemporary issues affecting telecommunications and the new media. Chapter after chapter, the technologies, economics and policies affecting the coming together of formerly disparate media sectors are discussed in a language that will appeal to readers of all levels of familiarity with this area. Of particular benefit to lay readers is the second chapter, which offers a primer on the technologies that make up the current media landscape and the changes in this domain that are contributing to the larger process of media convergence. Chapters two and five clearly define concepts, such as broadband communication, compression and bandwidth allocation, as well as discuss the distribution technologies – cable television, hybrid fibre coaxial/networks, ADSL, PCN and wireless systems, etc. – that may form the backbone of information superhighways.

While the authors see new technologies as facilitating the emergence of broadband communication systems, they point out that the eventual widespread adoption of new media is contingent on other economic, regulatory and social cultural changes. As they note, the history of telecommunications in the United States (which is the focus of the book, except for chapter 11 by Joseph Straubhaar and Joonho Do which takes a more global view of the issues at hand) shows that just because technological changes create the potential for new information services and markets doesn't mean that underlying economic and regulatory factors are similarly favourable. Repeatedly, the authors refer to the troubled history of audiotex and videotex services, the failure of the picture phone, the previous regulatory constraints on the regional Bell Operating Companies' (RBOCs) ability to offer information services, and other social cultural barriers that continue to stand between the hucksters of the information superhighway and reality. Yet, despite these cautionary notes, the authors remain optimistic that new technologies, regulatory liberalisation, and the introduction of competition over the last fifteen years means that a plethora of new services delivered over broadband communication facilities will be a reality in the immediate future.

2. Economic Issues

The authors address two crucial issues relating to the economics of broadband networks, which they prefer to call Full Service Networks (FSNs). The first relates to the cost of building the network and attaching customers to it. Unfortunately the authors are not very precise about the potential costs of building a universal FSN, which perhaps isn't surprising given that figures in this area tend to vary wildly, ranging anywhere from around $1,500 to $5,000 (USD) to connect each user, to between $200 and $500 million to wire the entire US. However, the authors do note that the cost of wiring up the country depends primarily on who builds the networks – their favourite contenders are the cable companies and the telcos – and whether fibre is brought down to the level of individual neighbourhoods, to the curb (Fibre to the Curb (FTTC)) or straight into individual homes (Fibre to the Household (FTTH)).

They also note that cable operators and telcos have certain economic problems that will hinder their efforts to marshal the requisite resources to build out the networks. Cable companies are saddled with large debts that need servicing and credit ratings that are lower than those of the telcos, which in turn increases the cost of obtaining capital. In contrast, telephone companies have low debts and find capital cheaper than the cable companies but have a recent history of paying high dividends rather than investing heavily in infrastructure. In addition, telephone companies have little experience in the dynamic field of mass communications – film, video and broadcasting – that some see as the key source of revenue needed to make FSNs commercially viable.

Second, according to the authors, the economic uncertainty of FSNs means that they will have to be heavily subsidised and to evolve along lines similar to that of the conventional mass media in order to be commercially successful. This is not necessarily true in all respects, as there will be a significant shift toward greater reliance on pay-per services. But in the main the authors' preferred vision of future media evolution is drawn from the US experience with cable television, suggesting that models of programme packaging (chapter four), pricing (chapter six), media consumption (chapter eight), and network and service management (chapter seven) developed for the cable industry will likely be used in the context of information superhighways. To some, these chapters may be seen as betraying a parochial view of media evolution, as the authors' eager embrace of advertising, willingness to view privacy and personal data as revenue sources, and extensive discussion of home shopping, home banking, teleworking and other instrumental uses of the new media eclipse any alternative, less commercialised and more judiciously balanced view of how information highways could evolve. Europeans and Canadians, for instance, will be struck by the complete absence of any role of public service media and information service providers in the scenario outlined by Convergence.

There are two problems with this view; one economic and cultural, the other political. With respect to the first, as even Baldwin, McVoy and Steinfield note, there is little evidence that demonstrates significant demand for new broadband networks and information services to begin with. As they note, even where demand does exist, the relative constancy of people's expenditures on media suggests that money and time spent on the 'new media' will come at the expense of cannibalising 'old media' (p. 202), rather than expand the size of the media market pie (as has been the case with long distance competition in telephony). Studies for the European Commission by the consultancy group KPMG,[1] among many others, come to similar conclusions. As these studies note, people's expenditures on telecommunications and/or cable will have to at least double to generate enough revenue to pay for the construction of new FSNs.

3. Analysis

Pushing these issues into the background, the analysis offered in Convergence begins to lose its level head and take on an exhoratory hue, essentially contributing to the 'technology-push' projects that are at the core of most 'information highway/society' projects in the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, Singapore and elsewhere. Technology push projects aside, it remains legitimate to ask why so-called FSNs are not deployed where and when there is adequate demand and ability to pay for them, as with Local Area Networks (LANs) and Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) that currently serve large business users and certain commercial districts. It is only once such elementary questions are ignored that it becomes necessary to reach so deeply for subsidies and traditional models of media development to overcome the current barriers to broadband networks in the first place. Leaving the realm of cool-headed analysis that characterises much of the book, in latter pages of Convergence the authors justify information highways through feeble statements such as the following:

'. . . That integrated networks must be built is not often debated. It is justification enough that it is possible. The social and economic benefits of high-speed communication in the computer age seem self-evident' (p. 303).

Once such sentiments take-over, it is only natural that fundamental questions about potential alternatives for new media development are eclipsed by an ideology of technological progress and inevitability. That there are other options has been made clear by groups such as the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, the Benton Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and so on. In contrast to Baldwin, McVoy and Steinfield, the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) lament that the Clinton Administration's National Information Infrastructure (NII)

'. . . may emphasize commerce at the expense of communication. Judging from the way information networks are used today, people value being on-line primarily because it gives them new ways to communicate with other people. Much of the recent discussion of the NII focuses instead on using the network to market information services. Failure to understand what people want from the NII may adversely affect the design. Over the past two decades, for example, many companies have conducted trials of videotext systems focused on shopping and information retrieval. All have been dismal failures. Now, as we stand poised to develop the NII, telephone, cable TV, computer, and broadcasting companies are again focusing on providing systems to promote electronic consumerism. Why? '[2]

The strong point of Convergence is that it recognises the importance of CPSR's point early on in the book. The weakness of the book, however, in this respect is two-fold: first, nowhere are groups such as the CPSR referred to, despite the fact that they have played a leading role in recent telecommunications policy processes in the United States, convened some of the best annual conferences on new media and computer communications, and were among the groups responsible for pushing the Supreme Court decision overturning the Communication Decency Act provisions of the new telecommunications law of 1996. Second, while Baldwin, McVoy and Steinfield acknowledge the central points about over-commercialisation and the historical failure of on-line media, they are diverted in later chapters from the task of analyzing broadband networks to promoting them. In my view, the central point is that broadband networks are currently commercially unviable and, indeed, may not even be needed, especially since services where there is demonstrable demand, for example the Internet, already operate well over the telephone network and would function superbly on intermediary technology such as ISDN. With this in mind, it is incumbent upon us to consider alternative potential paths that new media might follow. Three such paths come to my mind: (i) a commercially subsidised, expanded mass media version as advocated by Baldwin, McVoy and Steinfield as well as most of the communications industries and government policy-makers; (ii) FSNs available only in areas where there is demonstrable need and ability to pay for them, such as central business districts and areas that I call 'information suburbs' in contrast to the more positive and inclusive connotations associated with the 'information society'; or finally, (iii) a universal advanced public telecoms network based on a combination of ISDN, current broadband networks used for distributing broadcast programmes, and intermediate-level wireless technologies. Wedded to the first view, Convergence does not consider the latter two, or any other, possibilities.

Despite these observations, I still think that Convergence provides one of the best treatments of the issues at hand available and is a must read for anyone concerned with the new telecommunications. In addition to the points noted earlier in this review, the chapter by Straubhaar and Do outlining the potential for FSNs globally (chapter 12), the assessment of barriers to the widespread implementation of broadband communication networks, the consideration of the social impacts of the new media (chapter 13) and the evaluation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 [3] (chapter 11) all contribute to a solid analysis of media evolution on the cusp of the 21st century.

The unencumbered writing style, along with the authors' voluminous knowledge, make the book a must read for communication students, policy-makers, media professionals, and anybody else seeking to understand the new media. Moreover, the book contributes to a growing body of literature that takes telecommunications and media policy outside the cloistered domain of engineers, economists, lawyers and regulators and puts it in the public arena where it belongs. On this account, the authors should be commended for furthering our understanding and increasing the accessibility of this crucial area of public life.

Footnotes

[1] KPMG. (1996). Public policy issues arising from the telecommunications and audiovisual services main report. Brussels: European Commission.

[2] Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. (1994). Serving the community: A vision of the National Information Infrastructure. <http://www.cpsr.org/dox/home.html>

[3] Although, the authors' failure to recognise the importance of, and to critically assess, the sections of the new telecommunications law on indecency and obscenity stand out as a glaring omission in light of the recent Supreme Court decision ruling these sections unconstitutional.
Reno, Attorney General of the United States, et al. v. American Civil Liberties Union et al. Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania No 96-511. Argued March 19, 1997 - Decided June 26, 1997. <http://www.eff.org/pub/Legal/Cases/ACLU_v_Reno/HTML/970626_aclu_v_reno_decision.html>

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