David Mitchell

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1 David Mitchell is Professor and Director of Graduate Programs in the Faculty of. Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. He is also: Editor of ...

David Mitchell University of Calgary

Using New Media to Research the Social Impacts of New Media on Communities



Using New Media to Research the Social Impacts of New Media on Communities David Mitchell1 University of Calgary America: Land of Utopias; The Challenges of Social Communication Salvador, Brazil: Sept. 1, 2002

Abstract From the early 1990s onward, the Canadian government’s stated objectives for developing its information highway system have been connection, content and community. To date, though, virtually all programs have focused on the issue of improving connection – via the construction of high-speed internet backbones. Only recently, has there been any stress on the other two objectives: the production, distribution and regulation of content; and the enhancement of community via broadband access. So far, the main beneficiaries of the information highway in Canada have been individuals and institutions within the major cities and towns. Currently, though, there is talk of extending broadband capability to virtually all communities in the country within the next few years. The prototype for Canada as a broadband connected nation is already underway within the province of Alberta. By 2004, 95% of Albertan communities will be provided with broadband connectivity. It is expected that the Alberta SuperNet will provide these communities with higher levels of government information and social services. It is unclear, though, how the network will impact such things as higher education, economic development and cultural identity. This paper will report on a research project underway to study the broad social impacts of the SuperNet experiment. A research consortium, centred at the University of Calgary, will utilize a variety of wired and wireless broadband applications to coordinate a study of impacts in various communities. Through this project, graduate students will become competent with new technologies (e.g. IP-based videoconferencing, portal construction and maintenance) as they carry out their research. 1

David Mitchell is Professor and Director of Graduate Programs in the Faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. He is also: Editor of the Canadian Journal of Communication; and Lead Applicant of the InSite project, and the Alberta SuperNet Research Alliance. 2

Introduction: The theme of this conference “American, Land of Utopias, The Challenge of Social Communication” is intentionally ambivalent. On the one hand, as the Call for Papers states, we look forward to hearing about the development of diverse cultural identities – both traditional and new – at the local, regional and national level in the Americas. On the other hand, we know that each of these identities (e.g. “canadianity, quebecitude, bazilianity, creolization, indianity, negritude, etc.”i) is being challenged by larger , ultimately global, forces. This interplay between the heterogeneous forces of cultural diversity -- versus – the homogenizing forces of globalization is an extremely complex relationship as evidenced in Arjun Appadurai’s2 description of the manifold flows of people, ideology, cultural products, technology, and finances involved. It is in this context that the conference is looking for utopian perspectives – particularly with regard improving cultural diversity by harnessing the potential associated with innovations in information and communications technologies (ICT). This theme is both timely and pertinent to a conference that seeks to initiate an ongoing dialogue between Communication scholars in Brazil and Canada. For both our countries benefit from the export of cultural commodities – and at the same time see our respective national development policies for culture and technology infrastructure challenged by regional and ethnic demands for greater rights and resources. In what follows, I will describe the state of play in Canada. Within the larger context of the interplay between cultural diversity and globalization – I will describe how these issues fit into attempts over the past decade to develop our nation as an information society. I will describe some of the initiatives at our federal level to develop Canada through network infrastructural programs (connection), content development programs, and community development programs. These policies have been accompanied by talk about transforming Canada into a knowledge-based broadband networked nation within the next few years. For various reasons, this is not likely to happen in the short run, but a regional variation of this vision will land shortly within the province of Alberta. This will provide a rich environment for social scientific research. Canada as an Information Society The notion of using technological means to develop Canada as a nation – economically, socially, culturally – is as old as the country itself. As Robert Babe3 has pointed out, originally this involved the construction of transportation infrastructure , particularly railways; later it shifted to communications 2

Arjun Appardurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, , Chicago, University of Chicago, 1996. 3 Robert Babe, Canadian Communication Thought, Toronto, University of Toronto, 2000. 3

technology, particularly broadcasting. References to using information technology as a nation builder date from the 1970s and are usually tied to industrial development policy. In the early 1990s the phenomenon of convergence in information and communications technologies and services created a new environment for political discourse: Canada as a knowledge-based economy and society -- made possible by high-speed broadband networks. This vision became a widespread topic of discussion within the media, universities, the private sector, and government and non-governmental institutions. The involvement of the federal government in this area can be tracked historically with reference to the following documents: • 1993/95: Reports of the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC) • 1998: Report on New Media (Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission, CRTC) • 1999: The Connecting Canadian Strategy (Industry Canada) • 2001: Report of the National Broadband Task Force In the early 1990s the government set up the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC) to advise on a national strategy for developing Canada as a networked society. Through a series of reports4, the committee suggested that the government should implement policies and programs to develop Canada’s capacity in three areas: connection (broadband network infrastructure); content (digitized and internet-mediated content); and community (networked development) programs. The government took action first in the area of connection – providing resources in combination with the private sector to construct a series of nation-wide commercial and research information superhighways. Matters related to content were more or less marginalized until about 1998 when Canada’s national regulatory agency for broadcasting and telecommunications (CRTC) ruled that no policies should be enacted to regulate the exchange of content over the internet. Subsequently, the prospect of integrating connection policies with those of content and community development policies – was broached by the Connecting Canadians strategy. More recently, the National Broadband Task Force argued for the need to extend networked information services to all parts of Canada – particularly rural and remote communities. Connection: Building the network infrastructure When the Information Highway Advisory Committee (IHAC) surveyed the state of connectivity in Canada in the mid-1990’s they concluded that the country was well positioned to becoming an information society. This was because Canada 4

See: “Connection, Community, Content: The Challenge of the Information Highway“; (1995), and “Preparing Canada for a Digital World” (1997) http://strategis.ic.gc.ca/SSG/ih01015e.html 4

already had some of the highest penetration and adoption rates for both telephone and cable networks. Both of these network systems had the potential to be transformed into high-speed corridors. At the time, though, most domestic and commercial internet connectivity was very slow. Most connectivity was managed by dial-up modems over analogue telephone lines. There was also limited use of digitized telephone services (ISDN) which offered bandwidth in the 56 – 64 kbps range. The IHAC committee was informed that both the telephone/telecommunications (Telcos) as well as the cable systems could be transformed into “broadband” networks through the adoption of fiber optic cables and digital switching. •

Telecommunications firms (e.g. Telus, Bell) would need to build transnational networks using fiber lines – and then use digital switches to provide domestic and commercial users within local networks (“local loops” ) with varieties of “broadband” services: digital subscriber line – DSL (300 kbps); asynchronous digital subscriber line – ADSL (1200 kbps).

Cable firms (e.g. Rogers, Shaw) would need to build fiber lines between major cities, and then use digital switches to make their existing one-way “trunk and branch” cable systems – interactive with bandwidth at about 2 Mbps.

In the later 1990’s both of these “broadband” options were rolled out for domestic and commercial users. While these systems provided definite improvements over the original telephone dial-up services of the early 1990s, at the same time there were real limits on the kinds of applications they could support.


The figure above provides average bandwidth requirements for various types of users in 1999 – and then projects bandwidth need over the next 5 years. •

Home and SMEs: In 1999 users at home or within “small-to-medium enterprises” (SMEs) were still operating largely with dial-up 56 kbps modems. Within the next 5 years most of these would migrate to the higher-speed (I Mbps – 2 Mbps) options provided by telephone and cable firms. The speed at which household users have migrated to these higher speed services is illustrated below.

Schools and Libraries: As public information service providers, these institutions has already gravitated to the higher speed cable and telephone options. Over the next 5 years, their data (e.g. interlibrary loans) and communications (e.g. e-mail) needs are projected to increase into the 10 Mbps – 100 Mbps range – well beyond the capacity of either digitized cable or telephone services.

Hospitals: The chart indicates that it was difficult to estimate the bandwidth requirements for these institutions in 1999, though we can assume it was already at the level provided by cable and digitized telephone services. Notwithstanding, it is estimated that these institutions will show a dramatic increase in their bandwidth requirements over the next 5 years – from 10 Mbps – 1 Gbps). This is due, partly because of the increase of encrypted data traffic, and also because of the kinds of imaging-related applications (e.g. ultrasound).

To summarize, the chart above makes it clear that the levels of bandwidth required by most public institutions – and also larger enterprises (LEs) will not


be met by the “broadband” services currently provided by cable and telephone networks. The IHAC made similar projections to the federal government in the early1990’s, arguing that it was unlikely that the development of true high-speed broadband networks could be left to the private sector alone. It was felt that the government should play a role, in partnership with the large telcos, to construct very fast and robust networks. In response, the federal government created CANARIE (the Canadian Network for the Advancement of Research Industry and Education) – an arm’s length agency made up of federal and private sector partners. In the early 1990s CANARIE set about constructing the first high-speed “national test-bed network” called CA*net 1. CANARIE did not actually construct the network, it simply connected as series of leased long-haul telecommunication lines from firms such as Bell Canada. CA*net 1 provided 45 Mbps bandwidth to university and research centers across the nation. Later generations of the national test-bed network provided even higher bandwidth: CA*net 2 provided 155 Mbps, CA*net 3 provided 2.5 – 40 Gbps. The current version, CA*net 4 provides a minimum of 10 Gbps and incorporates in some of its regional networks optical wavelength switches (dense wave division multiplexing – DWDM). These new switches function by using prisms to split light into a vast array of seen and unseen wavelengths (lambdas). The implementation of DWDM technology in fiber networks promises to turn bandwidth – a traditionally scarce resource – into a widely available resource. For comparison purposes then: while, there are limits to the kinds of applications that can be supported by the cable and telephone networks – there are virtually no limits to kinds of applications that can be run on the national research networks that the government of Canada has been constructing. However, while the cable and telephone “broadband” options are available to the large majority of Canadian citizens, very few individuals in the country has access to the national test-bed network, CA*net 4. The figures below illustrate why this is so.


As the map on the above left shows, Canada ( like Brazil) covers a vast territorial expanse. However, the great majority of Canadians live within about 100 miles from the American border on the south. Not surprisingly, the national test-bed network (shown here as CA*net 3) uses 2 transnational routes to connect the major cities of the south. The network can only be directly accessed from a few university connection points (GigaPOPs shown as red dots) in major cities. The network is distributed regionally from the GigaPOPs at much lower bandwidth levels by a series of provincially based regional networks (ORANs). In general, most universities within southern Canada have very restricted access to the national test-bed network, while those in rural and remote areas have none at all. Policy issues related to content: In light of the above discussion, there are a number of key policy issues related to the provision of broadband connectivity in Canada. •

Policy process: The process of public policy formation has so far been very restricted – both in terms of who can be involved, and what topics can be discussed. The IHAC was a small group comprised mostly of appointed government officials and private sector players. Of the three themes they named –connection, content, community – the federal government has chosen to focus singlemindedly on connection at the expense of the other two.

Extension of broadband networks: Historically, the construction of broadcasting networks in Canada has involved a partnership of private and public organizations. Typically, the public corporation (CBC) has been left with the responsibility of extending network services into areas not reached by private networks. This pattern has not changed with broadband networks. At the regional level, telcos and cable firms alike have avoided extending their services to areas where there are no clear business cases. At the national level, the federal government has not had the resources to build a system of high-speed corridors on its own, but has had to leverage public subsidies to pay for the construction of a main lines controlled by private sector firms. Despite the extraordinary amount of bandwidth available on Canada’s research test-bed network, very few Canadians have access to it.

Content (digitized and internet-mediated content) Historically, the public broadcasting system in Canada has not only been responsible for extending the reach of network services (as above noted), it has also been mandated to provide content – in principle different from the kind of content provided by the private networks. In fulfilling this role the Canadian government has gone to great lengths, over the past 75 years, to provide resources for the creation of Canadian content in a variety of cultural industries (e.g. film, TV, print, sound). It has also taken action 8

to regulate the flow of content on our networks by requiring licensed broadcasters to carry minimum levels of Canadian anchored content. Beyond this the CRTC has gone further to regulate such areas as: market entry, levels of Canadian ownership, advertising. Given the strongly interventionist approach of the federal government in matters of old media (i.e. cultural industries and broadcasting) – its approach to new media has been surprisingly laissez-faire. This applies to both regulation and programs of support for content production and use. Regarding regulation: In the late 1990s, the CRTC established an inquiry to determine whether it should regulate new media -- defined as digitized and internet-mediated content. While the committee recognized that the internet had the potential to carry traditional forms of media (e.g. broadcasting) it reached the judgment that no formsof regulation was necessary to nurture the development of this new environment. This judgment was hailed as an enlightened one by groups championing the internet as an anarchistic open space. However, with the increasing commercialization of the web over the past few years, traditional content related concerns (e.g. access, copyright, accuracy, cost) have come back to haunt the government policy makers. Regarding content production: When the New Media inquiry was being held, there were practically no programs to support the production of new media content in Canada. The few programs that were available through the major granting and contracting agencies (i.e. Industry Canada, CANARIE, Heritage Canada) were associated with the digital repurposing of old media contents. Support from these programs involved taking the existing stock of entertainment and educational contents from traditional media – and first digitizing them, and then making them searchable through the use of meta (data) tagging systems. To date, few programs of support have targeted the development of new media content per se. Regarding content use: Little was known about how Canadians were accessing and using the internet until Statistics Canada published a series of studies in 2001.

How Canadians are Accessing the Internet Canadians online in 2001

63 %

Youth online


Households online


Those using the Internet at work


Those using the Internet at school 20%

What are the Barriers to Internet Use for Non-Users Cost




Time Skills


No Need



Source: Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey, 2000, Respondents 15


The table on the above right indicates that the majority of Canadians (63%) are already using the internet – mainly at home, and secondarily at work or school. The most dramatic statistic is the level of youth online (99%) which gives a clear projection of the shape of things to come. The table on the above right is useful in the way it throws light on the digital divide. While we might expect to see cost listed as a major barrier to internet use; we may be surprised to see access listed at virtually the same level. Policy issues related to content: As late as 2001, when the above statistics were made available, content issues – whether of regulation, content production, or content use – had yet to emerge as matters of federal policy interest. This changed when a national conference entitled Information Deficit: Canadian Solutions was dedicated to these matters in the fall of 2001. Some of the policy recommendations that emerged in this conference which are pertinent to our discussion here include: •

New media regulation: Given the questionable quality of much information on the internet, he government should establish an agency to index and evaluate internet sites in terms of quality of content.

New media production: Funds should be made available for both the preservation of heritage cultural artifacts (via digital repurposing) and also for the creation of contemporary objects and processes in new media environments.

New media use: The government should copy the path it has followed with old media in trying to balance the rights of creators (via copyright cooperatives) with the fair rights of access for users. One way to implement this will be to establish a national digital rights management system.

Community: connection and content for whom? The idea that media should play a role in community development is also a longstanding tradition in the history of Canadian broadcasting – along with the mandates: to extend network service; and to provide “distinctively Canadian” content. Yet, while the term community appears quite early in the reports of the Information Highway Advisory Council, community -- like content – does not get much practical support until the late 1990s. The first notable stress on using new media for purposes of community development appears in 1998 when John Manley, then Minister of Industry, rolled out his Connecting Canadians Strategy. One of the pillars of this strategy involved support for the creation of 12 “smart communities”. The idea here was to invest large funds ($ 5 M per community) to build a series of high profile demonstration projects across the country. It was hoped that these projects would stimulate further development in their respective regions.


In addition to the Smart Communities initiative, another program of support called the Community Access Program was implemented to help small rural and remote communities acquire basic internet access and facilities. The funds made available through this program were quite limited and usually only provided for minimal equipment and a basic dial-up service located at a community centre . While this program has helped some small communities to get started with internet use – it also magnified the digital divide that exists between these communities and the larger towns and cities in the south of Canada. Partly in response to the digital divide problem, in 2000 the National Broadband Task Force was established to consider a new vision for Canada as a broadband enabled nation. The Task Force noted that at earlier points in its history Canada had been transformed by various technologies: railway transportation, mechanization, and broadcasting. The Task Force concluded that the extension of broadband networks (and applications) held considerable promise for the development of Canadian communities – particularly those in underserved areas. The committee felt that providing broadband access to rural and remote communities had the potential to improve the quality of life in many areas: education, information, security, culture, health. Based on this view, the main recommendation of the Task Force was that all Canadian communities should be provided with basic broadband connectivity by 2004 – where basic broadband meant a minimum of 1.5 Mgbs symmetrical connectivity. Policy issues related to community: •

Will it ever be built: The main question is whether the Task Force’s vision of a fully broadband network nation will ever be implemented. Certainly, there is little likelihood that it meet the target of 2004 since the massive resources involved have not been awarded priority by the government. Any plans to construct broadband networks across the vastness of Canada will have to take account of alternatives to fiber lines such as wireless and satellite means.

If it is built – will it work? Assuming that over time most communities across Canada are connected by a system of broadband networks, will this system deliver on the promises of community development suggested by the Task Force? No overall answer can be provided here. Technically speaking, can expect there will be ample bandwidth to run advanced applications in those towns and cities connected by fiber lines. Where there is ample bandwidth there is good reason to expect that the level of public information services (e.g. health, government, and education) will improve. But we do not know whether communities enhanced by broadband networks will see improvements in economic development – and in the longer run in their overall quality of life.

Gauging the extent of the digital divide: At present the extent of the chasm that separates the digitally-haves from the digitally-have-nots is often calculated on a technical level. The have-nots do not have physical access 11

to high speed networks, or more typically, the capital resources to pay for such connection and the hardware and software to sustain such use. Providing resources to correct this imbalance will only constitute the first step in resolving the divide. Further programs will need to be developed to train communities how to maintain the technology and how to become literate as users. Case Study: the Alberta SuperNet: a provincial broadband network While the Task Force’s vision of connecting all Canadian communities by 2004 will not happen, a version of this initiative will take place in one of Canada’s western provinces – Alberta (refer to maps below). The province is currently constructing its SuperNet – a comprehensive broadband network that by 2004 will link 424 – or 95% of Albertan communities. To my knowledge there are not other precedents for the construction of a broadband network over such a large area.

The network will constructed using fiber mainlines and will provide: 100 Mbps bandwidth to 14 larger cities and towns; and 10 Mbps to all other smaller towns and villages. In every community the SuperNet will be connected to a number of public access points including: community school, community health clinic, government office, police/fire. What are the motives for the players involved? •

The provincial government: It has stated that it wants to better serve underserved communities. It believes that the implementation of the SuperNet will definitely improve the level and quality of public


information services within these communities. It also hopes that the construction of a broadband network will stimulate economic development. •

The contractors: Two firms are involved: Bell West and Axia. Bell West is handling most of the construction and is looking for value-added revenues when the network is operational. Axia will manage the network as an internet service provider (ISP) when it is up and running.

The communities: Communities were not consulted in the government discussions leading up to signing the construction contracts. More recently, though, the government has begun to communicate its program to communities through presentations to local councils.

When the provincial government announced its plans to build the SuperNet in 2001, a number of researchers in the area realized that this project constituted a rich case for social science research . Accordingly, a group of 14 researchers – based at the universities of Calgary, Alberta and Simon Fraser – teamed up to form the Alberta SuperNet Research Alliance. This Alliance has now received major 3-year funding from a federal research agency5 to study the social, economic, and cultural impacts of the SuperNet upon Albertan communities. It is hoped that these studies will provide lessons for connecting Canada at large – in line with the vision of the National Broadband Task Force. We know that the SuperNet will be built more or less on budget ($ 300 M) and on schedule (fall 2004). What we do not know, and what the Research Alliance is setting out to find out, are the following kinds of questions:


What services do communities want/need? The provincial government made the decision to construct the SuperNet as a matter of faith. The decision was not based on any systematic study of what communities in different regions of the province would like to see provided to them.

How much can communities afford to pay? The SuperNet will provide a set of basic public information services (e.g. health, safety, government information, etc.) at not cost. However, it will also provide an array of value-added services at cost in areas such as distance learning, enhanced medical services, business services.

Are there alternative ways to provide for these services? Beyond receiving free public information services, communities will need to estimate the most cost-effective ways to receive any particular valueadded service. For example, in the case of an educational or health service it may be more cost-efficient to either build a facility in the area itself – or commute for such a service to a nearby town.

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). 13

How will network services be extended within communities? The construction of the SuperNet ends at public access points within communities – it does not involve any extension of the network beyond these points. The government is looking to the private sector cable and telephone firms to take the initiative to extend services from these local access points outward across wider areas. This will only happen in those communities where the private providers can see promising business cases. But it will not happen in those regions which are remote and sparsely populated. Ironically, it is these latter communities that may be in greatest need for social services (e.g. medical, educational) that could be delivered by extending network access over a wide area.

How will the network impact economic development? As mentioned earlier, we simply do not know whether connecting communities to a broadband network will enhance their respective economic development. There are examples of particular communities enabled by broadband – but no studies of communities connected within a large region. As with social services, some firms may utilize broadband services to expand in their local communities – others may find themselves migrating eventually into larger centers in order to grow.

How will the network impact the quality of life ? Again, while there are case studies of stand-alone wired community experiments (e.g. the Intercom Ontario trial6), we are unaware of studies which compare the impacts on various communities within the same larger region. The planned Alberta study will need to compare how the patterns of work and play in different communities are impacted by the implementation of the provincial network.

Using new media to research the social impacts of new media on communities In response to the above set of research questions, the Alberta SuperNet Research Alliance will use a set of traditional social scientific research methods. The Alliance does not have the resources or time to carry out impact studies in all of the communities involved. Instead, it will develop a typology of classes of communities (e.g. major urban centre, small town close to major center, small town remote from major centers, indigenous community) and then select representative communities within these classes on which to focus. When the project begins in early 2003, the research group will design and carry out a general base-line survey to assess the needs and resources in each of the communities selected for study. Subsequently, other instruments will be applied including: specific statistical surveys, ethnographic interviews, cost-benefit analyses. 6

See: J. Durlak et al authors, “The Intercom Ontario High-Bandwidth Residential Field Trial: Lessons Learned”, Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol. 24(3), 1999.


In carrying out these studies the team will rely wherever possible on the potential of new media tools to support collaborative research at a distance. In recent years, the national research agencies in Canada have been placing greater emphasis on funding nation-wide collaborative research teams. The strategic notion here has been to build up critical masses of researchers in any particular discipline or field. However, encouraging researchers from across the country to work together in collaborative teams is challenged by the great distances involved and the high costs of travel. In response to this dilemma, a recent project entitled InSite—was funded by CANARIE to evaluate whether the research work of representative national teams could be enhanced if they were provided with connectivity to the national research network – and training and support with broadband videoconferencing suites. The results from this project clearly affirm that research process can be enhanced by using such an approach. 7 The Alberta SuperNet Research Alliance will use lessons learned from the InSite project to orient their own work. The team will use: • Asynchronous tools -- (e.g. email, listservs, website) -- to exchange information about the project between team members and with the communities involved. • Synchronous tools – particularly videoconferencing over internet protocol (IP-VC) – in order to carry out conversations in real time with individuals and groups in the communities. At the University of Calgary, we have been experimenting over the past 5 years with a variety of broadband applications that incorporate a manifold of multimedia tools (e.g. text, audio, audio-video). Some of these tools operate with very little bandwidth– others require medium or very high levels. Ultimately, our goal is to enable groups in rural and remote communities to communicate over relatively low bandwidth with groups in larger wellconnected centers. As the SuperNet is being constructed – and then implemented – our Alliance will take portable and easy-to-use videoconference units into the field in order to initiate an ongoing discussion between the communities and our research team. We intend to coordinate these symposia using our Internet Research Studio at the University of Calgary. We hope that we can harness new media to construct a public space in which communities can define and assess their own needs for broadband services.


See: the InSite Project’s “Final Report”: http://www.ucalgary.ca/insite/ 15