Current alternatives won’t light up Britain’s broadband blackspots

Satellites, microwaves, radio towers – how many more options must be tried before the government just shells out for fibre to the home? Reposted from The Conversation.

Despite the British government’s boasts of the steady roll-out of superfast broadband to more than four out of five homes and businesses, you needn’t be a statistician to realise that this means one out of five are still unconnected. In fact, the recent story about a farmer who was so incensed by his slow broadband that he built his own 4G mast in a field to replace it shows that for much of the country, little has improved.

The government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme claims that it will provide internet access of at least 24 Mbps (megabits per second) to 95% of the country by 2017 through fibre to the cabinet, where fast fibre optic networks connect BT’s exchanges to street cabinets dotted around towns and villages. The final connection to the home comes via traditional (slower) copper cables.

Those in rural communities are understandably sceptical of the government’s “huge achievement”, arguing that only a fraction of the properties included in the government’s running total can achieve reasonable broadband speeds, as signals drop off quickly with distance from BT’s street cabinets. Millions of people are still struggling to achieve even basic broadband, and not necessarily just in the remote countryside, but in urban areas such as Redditch, Lancaster and even Pimlico in central London.

Four problems to solve

This cabinet is a problem, not a solution. mikecattell, CC BY

Our research found four recurring problems: connection speeds, latency, contention ratios, and reliability.

Getting high-speed ADSL broadband delivered over existing copper cables is not possible in many areas, as the distance from the exchange or the street cabinet is so far that the broadband signal degrades and speeds drop. Minimum speed requirements are rising as the volume of data we use increases, so such slow connections will become more and more frustrating.

But speed is not the only limiting factor. Network delay, known as latency, can be as frustrating as it forces the user to wait for data to arrive or to be assembled into the right order to be processed. Most of our interviewees had high latency connections.

Many home users also suffer from high contention, where a connection slows as more users in the vicinity log on—for example, during evenings after work and at weekends. One respondent pointed out that the two or three large companies in the neighbouring village carried out their daily company backups between 6.30pm-8.30pm. This was obvious, he said, because during that time internet speeds “drop off the end of a cliff”.

Connection reliability is also a problem, with connections failing randomly for no clear reason, or due to weather such as heavy rain, snow or wind—not very helpful in Britain.

Three band-aid solutions

With delivery by copper cable proving inadequate for many, other alternatives have been suggested to fill the gaps.

Mobile phones are now ubiquitous devices, and mobile phone networks cover a huge proportion of the country. A 4G mobile network connection could potentially provide 100Mbps speeds. Unfortunately, the areas failed by poor fixed line broadband provision are often the same areas with poor mobile phone networks—particularly rural areas. While 2G/3G network coverage is better, it is far slower. Without unlimited data plans, users will also face monthly caps on use as part of their contract. Weather conditions can also adversely affect the service.

Satellite broadband could be the answer and can provide reasonably high speeds of up to around 20 Mbps. But despite the decent bandwidth available, satellite connections have high latency from the slow speed of transferring data to and from satellites, due to the far larger distances involved between satellites and the ground. High latency connections make it very difficult or impossible to use internet telephony such as Skype, to stream films, video or music, or play online games. It’s not really an option in mountainous regions, and is a more expensive option.

A third alternative is to use fixed wireless, relaying broadband signals over radio transmitters to cover the distance from where BT’s fixed-line fibre optic network ends. These services generally provide 20Mbps, low latency connections. However, radio towers require line-of-sight access which could be a problem given obstructions from hills or woods—factors that, again, limit use where it’s most needed.

The only one that fits

All these alternatives tend to be more expensive to set up and run, come with more strict data limits, and can be affected by atmospheric conditions such as rain, wind or fog. The only true superior alternative to fibre to the cabinet is to provide fibre to the home (FTTH), in which the last vestiges of the original copper telephone network are replaced with high-speed fibre optic right to the door of the home or business premises. Fibre optic is faster, can carry signals without loss over greater distances, and is more upgradable than copper. A true fibre optic solution would future-proof Britain’s internet access network for decades to come.

Despite its expense, it is the only solution for many rural communities, which is why some have organised to provide it for themselves, such as B4RN and B4YS in the north of England, and B4RDS in the southwest. But this requires a group of volunteers with knowledge, financial means, and the necessary dedication to lay the infrastructure that could offer a 1,000 Mbps service regardless of line distance and location—which won’t be an option for all.

A promised ‘right’ to fast internet rings hollow for millions stuck with 20th-century speeds

Tell those living in the countryside about the government’s promised “right to fast internet” and they’ll show you 10 years of similar, unmet promises. Reposted from The Conversation

In response to the government’s recent declarations that internet speeds of 100Mb/s should be available to “nearly all homes” in the UK, a great many might suggest that this is easier said than done. It would not be the first such bold claim, yet internet connections in many rural areas still languish at 20th-century speeds.

The government’s digital communications infrastructure strategy contains the intention of giving customers the “right” to a broadband connection of at least 5Mb/s in their homes.

There’s no clear indication of any timeline for introduction, nor what is meant by “nearly all homes” and “affordable prices”. But in any case, bumping the minimum speed to 5Mb/s is hardly adequate to keep up with today’s online society. It’s less than the maximum possible ADSL1 speed of 8Mb/s that was common in the mid-2000s, far less than the 24Mb/s maximum speed of ADSL2+ that followed, and far, far less than the 30-60Mb/s speeds typical of fibre optic or cable broadband connections available today.

In fact a large number of rural homes still are not able to access even the previously promised 2Mb/s minimum of the Digital Britain report in 2009.

Serious implications

As part of our study of rural broadband access we interviewed 27 people from rural areas in England and Wales about the quality of their internet connection and their daily experiences with slow and unreliable internet. Only three had download speeds of up to 6Mb/s, while most had connections that barely reached 1Mb/s. Even those who reported the faster speeds were still unable to carry out basic online tasks in a reasonable amount of time. For example using Google Maps, watching online videos, or opening several pages at once would require several minutes of buffering and waiting. Having several devices share the connection at a time wasn’t even an option.

So the pledge for a “right” to 5Mb/s made by the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, is as meaningless as previous promises for 2Mb/s. Nor is it close to fast enough. The advertised figure refers to download speed, of which the upload speed is typically only a fraction. This means uploads far slower even than these slow download speeds, rendering it all but unusable for those needing to send large files, such as businesses.

With constantly moving timescales for completion, the government doesn’t seem to regard adequate rural broadband connections as a matter of urgency, even while the consequences for those affected are often serious and urgent at the same time. In Snowdonia, for example, a fast and more importantly reliable broadband connection can be a matter of life and death.

The Llanberis Mountain Rescue team at the foot of Mount Snowdon receives around 200 call-outs a year to rescue mountaineers from danger. Their systems are connected to police and emergency services, all of which run online to provide a quick and precise method of locating lost or injured mountaineers. But their internet connection is below 1Mb/s and cuts out regularly, especially in bad weather, which interferes with dispatching the rescue teams quickly. With low signal or no reception at all in the mountains, neither mobile phone networks nor satellite internet connections are alternatives.

All geared up but no internet connection. Anne-Marie Oostveen, Author provided

Connection interrupted

Even besides life and death situations, slow and unreliable internet can seriously affect people—their social lives, their family connections, their health and even their finances. Some of those we interviewed had to drive one-and-a-half hours to the nearest city in order to find internet connections fast enough to download large files for their businesses. Others reported losing clients because they weren’t able to maintain a consistent online presence or conduct Skype meetings. Families were unable to check up on serious health conditions of their children, while others, unable to work from home, were forced to commute long distances to an office.

Rural areas: high on appeal, low on internet connectivity. Bianca Reisdorf, Author provided

Especially in poorer rural areas such as North Wales, fast and reliable internet could boost the economy by enabling small businesses to emerge and thrive. It’s not a lack of imagination and ability holding people in the region back, it’s the lack of 21st-century communications infrastructure that most of us take for granted.

The government’s strategy document explains that it “wants to support the development of the UK’s digital communications infrastructure”, yet in doing so wishes “to maintain the principle that intervention should be limited to that which is required for the market to function effectively.”

It is exactly this vagueness that is currently preventing communities from taking matters into their own hands. Many of our interviewees said they still hoped BT would deploy fast internet to their village or premises, but had been given no sense of when that might occur, if at all, or that given timescales slip. “Soon” seems to be the word that keeps those in the countryside in check, causing them to hold off on looking for alternatives—such as community efforts like the B4RN initiative in Lancashire.

If the government is serious about the country’s role as a digital nation, it needs to provide feasible solutions for all populated areas of the country, which means affordable, and future-proof, which entails fibre to the premises (FTTP)—and sooner rather than later.

Examining the data-driven value chains that are changing Rwanda’s tea sector

Behind the material movement that takes tea from the slopes of Rwanda’s ‘thousand hills’ to a box on a shelf in Tesco, is a growing set of less visible digital data flows. Image by pasunejen.

Production of export commodity goods like tea, coffee and chocolate is an important contributor to economies in Africa. Producers sell their goods into international markets, with the final products being sold in supermarkets, here in the UK and throughout the world. So what role is new Internet connectivity playing in changing these sectors—which are often seen as slow to adopt new technologies? As part of our work examining the impacts of growing Internet connectivity and new digital ICTs in East Africa we explored uses of the Internet and ICTs in the tea sector in Rwanda.

Tea is a sector with well-established practices and relations in the region, so we were curious if ICT might be changing it. Of course, one cannot ignore the movements of material goods when you research the tea sector. Tea is Rwanda’s main export by value, and in 2012 it moved over 21,000 tonnes of tea, accruing around $56m in value. During our fieldwork we interviewed cooperatives in remote offices surrounded by tea plantations in the temperate Southern highlands, tea processors in noisy tea factories heavy with the overpowering smell of fermenting tea leaves, and tea buyers and sellers surrounded by corridors piled high with sacks of tea.

But behind the material movement that takes tea from the slopes of Rwanda’s ‘thousand hills’ to a box on a shelf in Tesco, is a growing set of less visible digital data flows. Whilst the adoption of digital technologies is not comprehensive in the Rwandan tea sector (with, for example, very low Internet use among tea growers), we did find growing use of the Internet and ICTs. More importantly, where they were present, digital flows of information (such as tea-batch tracking, logistics and sales prices) were increasingly important to the ability of firms to improve production and ultimately to increase their profit share from tea. We have termed this a ‘data-driven value chain’ to highlight that these new digital information flows are becoming as important as the flows of material goods.

So why is tea production becoming increasingly ‘data-driven’? We found two principal drivers at work. Firstly, production of commodities like tea has shifted to private ownership. In Rwanda, tea processing factories are no longer owned by the government (as they were a decade ago) but by private firms, including several multinational tea firms. Prices for buying and selling tea are also no longer fixed by the government, but depend on the market—flat rate prices stopped at the end of 2012. Data on everything from international prices, tea quality and logistics has become increasingly important as Rwandan tea firms look to be part of the global market, by better coordinating production and improving the prices of their tea. For instance, privately owned tea factories (often in remote locations) connect via satellite or microwave Internet links to head offices, and systems integration allows multi-national tea firms the ability to track and monitor production at the touch of a button.

Secondly, we need to understand new product innovation in the tea sector. In recent years new products have particularly revolved around growing demand in the retail market for differentiated products—such as ‘environmental’, fair trade or high quality teas—for which the consumer is willing to pay more. This relates most obviously to the activities in the fields and tea processors, but digital information is also crucial in order to allow for ‘traceability’ of tea. As this guarantees that tea batches have satisfied conditions around location, food safety, chemical use, fair labour (etc.) a key component of new product innovation is therefore data—because it is integral to firms’ abilities to prove their value-added production or methods.

The idea of agricultural value chains—of analysing agricultural production from the perspective of a fragmented network of interconnected firms—has become increasingly influential in strategies and policy making supported by large donors such as the World Bank and the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), an agency of the UN.

These value chain approaches explore the amount of economic ‘value’ that different actors in the supply chain are able to capture in production. For instance, Rwandan tea farmers are only able to capture very small proportions of the final retail prices—we estimate they are paid less than 6% of the cost of the eventual retail product, and only 22% of the cost of the raw tea that is sold to retailers. Value chain analysis has been popular for policy makers and donors in that it helps them to formulate policies to support how firms in countries like Rwanda improve their value through innovation, improving processes of production, or reaching new customers.

Yet, at the moment it appears that the types of analysis being done by policy makers and donors pay very little attention to the importance of digital data, and so they are presenting an unclear picture of the ways to improve—with a tendency to focus on material matters such as machinery or business models.

Our research particularly highlighted the importance of considering how to adapt digital data flows. The ways that digital information is codified, digitised and accessed can be exclusionary, reducing the ability for smaller actors in Rwanda to compete. For instance, we found that lack of access to clear information about prices, tea quality and wider market information means that smallholders, small processors and cooperatives may not compete as well as they could, or be missing on wider innovations in tea production.

While we have focused here only on tea production, our discussions with those working in other agricultural sectors—and in other countries—suggest that our observations have significance across other agricultural sectors. In agricultural production, strategy, policy and researchers mainly focus on the material elements of production—those which are more visible and quantifiable. However, we suggest that often underlying such actions is a growing layer of digital data activity. It is only through more coherent analysis of the role of digital technologies and data that we can better analyse production—and build appropriate policy and strategies to support commodity producers in sectors like Rwandan tea.

Read the full report: Foster, C., and Graham, M. (2015) Connectivity and the Tea Sector in Rwanda. Value Chains and Networks of Connectivity-Based Enterprises in Rwanda. Project Report, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.


Chris Foster is a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. His research focus is on technologies and innovation in developing and emerging markets, with a particular interest on how ICTs can support development of low income groups.

Why haven’t digital platforms transformed firms in developing countries? The Rwandan tourism sector explored

Tourism is becoming an increasingly important contributor to Rwanda’s economy. Image of Homo sapiens and Gorilla beringei beringei meeting in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park by Andries3.

One of the great hopes for new Internet connectivity in the developing world is that it will allow those in developing countries who offer products and services to link to and profit from global customers. With the landing of undersea Internet infrastructure in East Africa, there have been hopes that as firms begin to use the Internet more extensively that improved links to markets will positively impact them.

Central to enabling new customer transactions is the emergence of platforms—digital services, websites and online exchanges—that allow more direct customer-producer interactions to occur. As part of our work exploring the impacts of growing internet connectivity and digital ICTs in East Africa, we wanted to explore how digital platforms were affecting Rwandan firms. Have Rwandan firms been able to access online platforms? What impact has access to these platforms had on firms?

Tourism is becoming an increasingly important contributor to Rwanda’s economy, with 3.1% direct contribution to GDP, and representing 7% of employment. Tourism is typically focused on affluent international tourists who come to explore the wildlife of the country, most notably as the most accessible location to see the mountain gorilla. Rwandan policy makers see tourism as a potential area for expansion, and new connectivity could be one key driver in making the country more accessible to customers.

Tourist service providers in Rwanda have a very high Internet adoption, and even the smallest hotel or tour agency is likely to have at least one mobile Internet-connected laptop. Many of the global platforms also have a presence in the region: online travel agents such as Expedia and Hotels.com work with Rwandan hotels, common social media used by tourists such as TripAdvisor and Facebook are also well-known, and firms have been encouraged by the government to integrate into payment platforms like Visa.

So, in the case of Rwandan tourism, Internet connectivity, Internet access and sector-wide platforms are certainly available for tourism firms. During our fieldwork, however (and to our surprise) we found adoption of digital tourism platforms to be low, and the impact on Rwandan tourism minimal. Why? This came down to three mismatches—essentially to do with integration, with fit, and with interactions.

Global tourism platforms offer the potential for Rwandan firms to seamlessly reach a wider range of potential tourists around the globe. However, we found that the requirements for integration into global platforms were often unclear for Rwandan firms, and there was a poor fit with the existing systems and skills. For example, hotels and lodges normally integrate into online travel agencies through integration of internal information systems, which track bookings and availability within hotels. However, in Rwanda, whilst a few larger hotels used booking systems, even the medium-sized hotels lacked internal booking systems, with booking based on custom Excel spreadsheets, or even paper diaries. When tourism firms attempted to integrate into online services they thus ran into problems, and only the large (international) hotel chains tended to be fully integrated.

Integration of East African tourism service providers into global platforms was also limited by the nature of the activities in the region. Global platforms have typically focused on providing facilities for online information, booking and payment for discrete tourism components—a hotel, a flight, a review of an attraction. However, in East Africa much international tourism is ‘packaged’, meaning a third-party (normally a tour operator) will build an itinerary and make all the bookings for customers. This means that online tourism platforms don’t provide a particularly good fit, either for tourists or Rwandan service providers. A tourist will not want the complication of booking a full itinerary online, and a small lodge that gets most of its bookings through tour operators will see little potential in integrating into a global online platform.

Interaction of Rwandan tourism service providers with online platforms is inevitably undertaken over digital networks, based on remote interactions, payments and information flows. This arms-length relationship often becomes problematic where the skills and ability of service providers are lower. For example, Rwandan tourism service providers often require additional information, help or even training on how best to use platforms which are frequently changing. In contexts where lower cost Internet can at times be inconsistent, and payment systems can be busy, having the ability to connect to local help and discuss issues is important. Yet, this is the very element that global platforms like online travel agents are often trying to remove.

So in general, we found that tourism platforms supported the large international hotels and resorts where systems and structures were already in place for seamless integration into platforms. Indeed, as the Rwandan government looks to expand the tourism sector (such as through new national parks and regional integration), there is a risk that the digital domain will support generic international chains entering the country—over the expansion of local firms.

There are potential ways forward, though. Ironically, the most successful online travel agency in Rwanda is one that has contracted a local firm in the capital Kigali to allow for ‘thicker’ interactions between Rwandan service providers and platform providers. There are also a number of South African and Kenyan online platforms in the early stages of development that are more attuned to the regional contexts of tourism (for example Safari Now, a dynamic Safari scheduling platform; Nights Bridge, an online platform for smaller hotels; and WETU, an itinerary sharing platform for service providers), and these may eventually offer a better solution for Rwandan tourism service providers.

We came to similar conclusions in the other sectors we examined as part of our research in East Africa (looking at tea production and Business Process Outsourcing)—that is, that use of online platforms faces limitations in the region. Even as firms find themselves able to access the Internet, the way these global platforms are designed presents a poor fit to the facilities, activities and needs of firms in developing countries. Indeed, in globalised sectors (such as tourism and business outsourcing) platforms can be actively exclusionary, aiding international firms entering developing countries over those local firms seeking to expand outwards.

For platform owners and developers focusing on such developing markets, the impacts of greater access to the Internet are therefore liable to come when platforms are able to balance between global reach and standards—while also being able to integrate some of the specific needs and contexts of developing countries.

Read the full report: Foster, C., and Graham, M. (2015) The Internet and Tourism in Rwanda. Value Chains and Networks of Connectivity-Based Enterprises in Rwanda. Project Report, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.


Chris Foster is a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. His research focus is on technologies and innovation in developing and emerging markets, with a particular interest on how ICTs can support development of low income groups.

Outside the cities and towns, rural Britain’s internet is firmly stuck in the 20th century

The quality of rural internet access in the UK, or lack of it, has long been a bone of contention. Reposted from The Conversation.

The quality of rural internet access in the UK, or lack of it, has long been a bone of contention. The government says “fast, reliable broadband” is essential, but the disparity between urban and rural areas is large and growing, with slow and patchy connections common outside towns and cities.

The main reason for this is the difficulty and cost of installing the infrastructure necessary to bring broadband to all parts of the countryside—certainly to remote villages, hamlets, homes and farms, but even to areas not classified as “deep rural” too.

A countryside unplugged

As part of our project Access Denied, we are interviewing people in rural areas, both very remote and less so, to hear their experiences of slow and unreliable internet connections and the effects on their personal and professional lives. What we’ve found so far is that even in areas less than 20 miles away from big cities, the internet connection slows to far below the minimum of 2Mb/s identified by the government as “adequate”. Whether this is fast enough to navigate today’s data-rich Web 2.0 environment is questionable.

Yes… but where, exactly? Rept0n1x, CC BY-SA

Our interviewees could attain speeds between 0.1Mb/s and 1.2Mb/s, with the latter being a positive outlier among the speed tests we performed. Some interviewees also reported that the internet didn’t work in their homes at all, in some cases for 60% of the time. This wasn’t related to time of day; the dropped connection appeared to be random, and not something they could plan for.

The result is that activities that those in cities and towns would see as entirely normal are virtually impossible in the country—online banking, web searches for information, even sending email. One respondent explained that she was unable to pay her workers’ wages for a full week because the internet was too slow and kept cutting out, causing her online banking session to reset.

Linking villages

So poor quality internet is a major problem for some. The question is what the government and BT—which won the bid to deploy broadband to all rural UK areas—are doing about it.

The key factor affecting the speed and quality of the connection is the copper telephone lines used to connect homes to the street cabinet. While BT is steadily upgrading cabinets with high-speed fibre optic connections that connect them to the local exchange, known as fibre to the cabinet (FTTC), the copper lines slow the connection speed considerably as line quality degrades with distance from the cabinet. While some homes within a few hundred metres of the cabinet in a village centre may enjoy speedier access, for homes that are perhaps several miles away FTTC brings no improvement.

One solution is to leave out cables of any kind, and use microwave radio links, similar to those used by mobile phone networks. BT has recently installed an 80Mb/s microwave link spanning the 4km necessary to connect the village of Northlew, in Devon, to the network—significantly cheaper and easier than laying the same length of fibre optic cable.

Connecting homes

Microwave links require line-of-sight between antennas, so it’s not a solution that will work everywhere. And in any case, while this is another step toward connecting remote villages, it doesn’t solve the problem of connecting individual homes which are still fed by copper cables and which could be miles away from the cabinet, with their internet speeds falling with every metre.

An alternative approach, championed by some community initiatives such as the Broadband For the Rural North (B4RN) project in Lancashire, is fibre-to-the-home (FTTH). This is regarded as future-proof because it provides a huge increase in speed—up to 1,000Mb/s—and because, even as minimum acceptable speeds continue to rise over the following years and decades, fibre can be easily upgraded. Copper cables simply cannot provide rural areas with the internet speeds needed today.

However FTTH is expensive—and BT will opt for the cheapest option or nothing at all. This needs to be addressed more assertively by the government as the UK’s internet speeds are falling behind other countries. According to Akamai’s latest State of the Internet report for 2014, peak and average speeds in the UK lag behind. The UK ranks 16th in Europe, behind others usually perceived as less connected and competitive such as Latvia or Romania.

If the government is serious about staying competitive in the global market this isn’t good enough, which means the government and BT need to get serious about putting some speed into getting Britain online.

Past and Emerging Themes in Policy and Internet Studies

We can’t understand, analyze or make public policy without understanding the technological, social and economic shifts associated with the Internet. Image from the (post-PRISM) “Stop Watching Us” Berlin Demonstration (2013) by mw238.

In the journal’s inaugural issue, founding Editor-in-Chief Helen Margetts outlined what are essentially two central premises behind Policy & Internet’s launch. The first is that “we cannot understand, analyse or make public policy without understanding the technological, social and economic shifts associated with the Internet” (Margetts 2009, 1). It is simply not possible to consider public policy today without some regard for the intertwining of information technologies with everyday life and society. The second premise is that the rise of the Internet is associated with shifts in how policy itself is made. In particular, she proposed that impacts of Internet adoption would be felt in the tools through which policies are effected, and the values that policy processes embody.

The purpose of the Policy and Internet journal was to take up these two challenges: the public policy implications of Internet-related social change, and Internet-related changes in policy processes themselves. In recognition of the inherently multi-disciplinary nature of policy research, the journal is designed to act as a meeting place for all kinds of disciplinary and methodological approaches. Helen predicted that methodological approaches based on large-scale transactional data, network analysis, and experimentation would turn out to be particularly important for policy and Internet studies. Driving the advancement of these methods was therefore the journal’s third purpose. Today, the journal has reached a significant milestone: over one hundred high-quality peer-reviewed articles published. This seems an opportune moment to take stock of what kind of research we have published in practice, and see how it stacks up against the original vision.

At the most general level, the journal’s articles fall into three broad categories: the Internet and public policy (48 articles), the Internet and policy processes (51 articles), and discussion of novel methodologies (10 articles). The first of these categories, “the Internet and public policy,” can be further broken down into a number of subcategories. One of the most prominent of these streams is fundamental rights in a mediated society (11 articles), which focuses particularly on privacy and freedom of expression. Related streams are children and child protection (six articles), copyright and piracy (five articles), and general e-commerce regulation (six articles), including taxation. A recently emerged stream in the journal is hate speech and cybersecurity (four articles). Of course, an enduring research stream is Internet governance, or the regulation of technical infrastructures and economic institutions that constitute the material basis of the Internet (seven articles). In recent years, the research agenda in this stream has been influenced by national policy debates around broadband market competition and network neutrality (Hahn and Singer 2013). Another enduring stream deals with the Internet and public health (eight articles).

Looking specifically at “the Internet and policy processes” category, the largest stream is e-participation, or the role of the Internet in engaging citizens in national and local government policy processes, through methods such as online deliberation, petition platforms, and voting advice applications (18 articles). Two other streams are e-government, or the use of Internet technologies for government service provision (seven articles), and e-politics, or the use of the Internet in mainstream politics, such as election campaigning and communications of the political elite (nine articles). Another stream that has gained pace during recent years, is online collective action, or the role of the Internet in activism, ‘clicktivism,’ and protest campaigns (16 articles). Last year the journal published a special issue on online collective action (Calderaro and Kavada 2013), and the next forthcoming issue includes an invited article on digital civics by Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, with commentary from prominent scholars of Internet activism. A trajectory discernible in this stream over the years is a movement from discussing mere potentials towards analyzing real impacts—including critical analyses of the sometimes inflated expectations and “democracy bubbles” created by digital media (Shulman 2009; Karpf 2012; Bryer 2012).

The final category, discussion of novel methodologies, consists of articles that develop, analyse, and reflect critically on methodological innovations in policy and Internet studies. Empirical articles published in the journal have made use of a wide range of conventional and novel research methods, from interviews and surveys to automated content analysis and advanced network analysis methods. But of those articles where methodology is the topic rather than merely the tool, the majority deal with so-called “big data,” or the use of large-scale transactional data sources in research, commerce, and evidence-based public policy (nine articles). The journal recently devoted a special issue to the potentials and pitfalls of big data for public policy (Margetts and Sutcliffe 2013), based on selected contributions to the journal’s 2012 big data conference: Big Data, Big Challenges? In general, the notion of data science and public policy is a growing research theme.

This brief analysis suggests that research published in the journal over the last five years has indeed followed the broad contours of the original vision. The two challenges, namely policy implications of Internet-related social change and Internet-related changes in policy processes, have both been addressed. In particular, research has addressed the implications of the Internet’s increasing role in social and political life. The journal has also furthered the development of new methodologies, especially the use of online network analysis techniques and large-scale transactional data sources (aka ‘big data’).

As expected, authors from a wide range of disciplines have contributed their perspectives to the journal, and engaged with other disciplines, while retaining the rigour of their own specialisms. The geographic scope of the contributions has been truly global, with authors and research contexts from six continents. I am also pleased to note that a characteristic common to all the published articles is polish; this is no doubt in part due to the high level of editorial support that the journal is able to afford to authors, including copyediting. The justifications for the journal’s establishment five years ago have clearly been borne out, so that the journal now performs an important function in fostering and bringing together research on the public policy implications of an increasingly Internet-mediated society.

And what of my own research interests as an editor? In the inaugural editorial, Helen Margetts highlighted work, finance, exchange, and economic themes in general as being among the prominent areas of Internet-related social change that are likely to have significant future policy implications. I think for the most part, these implications remain to be addressed, and this is an area that the journal can encourage authors to tackle better. As an editor, I will work to direct attention to this opportunity, and welcome manuscript submissions on all aspects of Internet-enabled economic change and its policy implications. This work will be kickstarted by the journal’s 2014 conference (26-27 September), which this year focuses on crowdsourcing and online labor.

Our published articles will continue to be highlighted here in the journal’s blog. Launched last year, we believe this blog will help to expand the reach and impact of research published in Policy and Internet to the wider academic and practitioner communities, promote discussion, and increase authors’ citations. After all, publication is only the start of an article’s public life: we want people reading, debating, citing, and offering responses to the research that we, and our excellent reviewers, feel is important, and worth publishing.

Read the full editorial:  Lehdonvirta, V. (2014) Past and Emerging Themes in Policy and Internet Studies. Policy & Internet 6(2): 109-114.

References

Bryer, T.A. (2011) Online Public Engagement in the Obama Administration: Building a Democracy Bubble? Policy & Internet 3 (4).

Calderaro, A. and Kavada, A. (2013) Challenges and Opportunities of Online Collective Action for Policy Change. Policy & Internet (5) 1.

Hahn, R. and Singer, H. (2013) Is the U.S. Government’s Internet Policy Broken? Policy & Internet 5 (3) 340-363.

Karpf, D. (2012) Online Political Mobilisation from the Advocacy Group’s Perspective: Looking Beyond Clicktivism. Policy & Internet 2 (4) 7-41.

Margetts, H. (2009) The Internet and Public Policy. Policy and Internet 1 (1).

Margetts, H. and Sutcliffe, D. (2013) Addressing the Policy Challenges and Opportunities of ‘Big Data.’ Policy & Internet 5 (2) 139-146.

Shulman, S.W. (2009) The Case Against Mass E-mails: Perverse Incentives and Low Quality Public Participation in U.S. Federal Rulemaking. Policy & Internet 1 (1) 23-53.

The economic expectations and potentials of broadband Internet in East Africa

Ed: There has a lot of excitement about the potential of increased connectivity in the region: where did this come from? And what sort of benefits were promised?

Chris: Yes, at the end of the 2000s when the first fibre cables landed in East Africa, there was much anticipation about what this new connectivity would mean for the region. I remember I was in Tanzania at the time, and people were very excited about this development—being tired of the slow and expensive satellite connections where even simple websites could take a minute to load. The perception, both in the international press and from East African politicians was that the cables would be a game changer. Firms would be able to market and sell more directly to customers and reduce inefficient ‘intermediaries’. Connectivity would allow new types of digital-driven business, and it would provide opportunity for small and medium firms to become part of the global economy. We wanted to revisit this discussion. Were firms adopting internet, as it became cheaper? Had this new connectivity had the effects that were anticipated, or was it purely hype?

Ed:  So what is the current level and quality of broadband access in Rwanda? ie how connected are people on the ground?

Chris: Internet access has greatly improved over the previous few years, and the costs of bandwidth have declined markedly. The government has installed a ‘backbone’ fibre network and in the private sector there has also been a growth in the number of firms providing Internet service. There are still some problems though. Prices are still are quite high, particularly for dedicated broadband connections, and in the industries we looked at (tea and tourism) many firms couldn’t afford it. Secondly, we heard a lot of complaints that lower bandwidth connections—WiMax and mobile internet—are unreliable and become saturated at peak times. So, Rwanda has come a long way, but we expect there will be more improvements in the future.

Ed: How much impact has the Internet had on Rwanda’s economy generally? And who is it actually helping, if so?

Chris: Economists in the World Bank have calculated that in developing economies a 10% improvement in Internet access leads to an increase in growth of 1.3%, so the effects should be taken seriously. In Rwanda, it’s too early to concretely see the effects in bottom line economic growth. In Rwanda, it’s too early to concretely see the effects in bottom line economic growth. In this work we wanted to examine the effect on already established sectors to get insight on Internet adoption and use. In general, we can say that firms are increasingly adopting Internet connectivity in some form, and that firms have been able take advantage and improve operations. However, it seems that wider transformational effects of connectivity have so far been limited.

Ed: And specifically in terms of the Rwandan tea and tourism industries: has the Internet had much effect?

Chris: The global tourism industry is driven by Internet use, and so tour firms, guides and hotels in Rwanda have been readily adopting it. We can see that the Internet has been beneficial, particularly for those firms coordinating tourism in Rwanda, who can better handle volumes of tourists. In the tea industry, adoption is a little lower but the Internet is used in similar ways—to coordinate the movement of tea from production to processing to selling, and this simplifies management for firms. So, connectivity has had benefits by improvements in efficiency, and this complements the fact that both sectors are looking to attract international investment and become better integrated into markets. In that sense, one can say that the growth in Internet connectivity is playing a significant role in strategies of private sector development.

Ed: The project partly focuses on value chains: ie where value is captured at different stages of a chain, leading (for example) from Rwandan tea bush to UK Tesco shelf. How have individual actors in the chain been affected? And has there been much in the way of (the often promised) disintermediation—ie are Rwandan tea farmers and tour operators now able to ‘plug directly’ into international markets?

Chris: Value chains allow us to pay more attention to who are the winners (and losers) of the processes described above, and particularly to see if this benefits Rwandan firms who are linked into global markets. One of the potential benefits originally discussed around new connectivity was that with the growth of online channels and platforms—and through social media—that firms as they became connected would have a more direct link to large markets and be able to disintermediate and improve the benefits they received. Generally, we can say that such disintermediation has not happened, for different reasons. In the tourism sector, many tourists are still reluctant to go directly to Rwandan tourist firms, for reasons related to trust (particularly around payment for holidays). In the tea sector, the value chains are very well established, and with just a few retailers in the end-markets, direct interaction with markets has simply not materialised. So, the hope of connectivity driving disintermediation in value chains has been limited by the market structure of both these sectors.

Ed: Is there any sense that the Internet is helping to ‘lock’ Rwanda into global markets and institutions: for example international standards organisations? And will greater transparency mean Rwanda is better able to compete in global markets, or will it just allow international actors to more efficiently exploit Rwanda’s resources—ie for the value in the chain to accrue to outsiders?

Chris: One of the core activities around the Internet that we found for both tea and tourism was firms using connectivity as a way to integrate themselves into logistic tracking, information systems, and quality and standards; whether this be automation in the tea sector or using global booking systems in the tourism sector. In one sense, this benefits Rwandan firms in that it’s crucial to improving efficiency in global markets, but it’s less clear that benefits of integration always accrue to those in Rwanda. It also moves away from the earlier ideas that connectivity would empower firms, unleashing a wave of innovation. To some of the firms we interviewed, it felt like this type of investment in the Internet was simply a way for others to better monitor, define and control every step they made, dictated by firms far away.

Ed. How do the project findings relate to (or comment on) the broader hopes of ICT4D developers? ie does ICT (magically) solve economic and market problems—and if so, who benefits?

Chris: For ICT developers looking to support development, there is often a tendency to look to build for actors who are struggling to find markets for their goods and services (such as apps linking buyers and producers, or market pricing information). But, the industries we looked at are quite different—actors (even farmers) are already linked via value chains to global markets, and so these types of application were less useful. In interviews, we found other informal uses of the Internet amongst lower-income actors in these sectors, which point the way towards new ICT applications: sectoral knowledge building, adapting systems to allow smallholders to better understand their costs, and systems to allow better links amongst cooperatives. More generally for those interested in ICT and development, this work highlights that changes in economies are not solely driven by connectivity, particularly in industries where rewards are already skewed towards larger global firms over those in developing countries. This calls for a context-dependent analysis of policy and structures, something that can be missed when more optimistic commentators discuss connectivity and the digital future.


Christopher Foster was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Seeing like a machine: big data and the challenges of measuring Africa’s informal economies

State research capacity has been weakened since the 1980s. It is now hoped that the ‘big data’ generated by mobile phone use can shed light on African economic and social issues, but we must pay attention to what new technologies are doing to the bigger research environment. Image by Nicki Kindersley.


As Linnet Taylor’s recent post on this blog has argued, researchers are gaining interest in Africa’s big data. Linnet’s excellent post focused on what the profusion of big data might mean for privacy concerns and frameworks for managing personal data. My own research focuses on the implications of big (and open) data on knowledge about Africa; specifically, economic knowledge.

As an introduction, it might be helpful to reflect on the French colonial concepts of l’Afrique utile and l’Afrique inutile (concepts most recently re-invoked by William Reno in 1999 and James Ferguson in 2005). L’Afrique utile, or usable Africa represented parts of Africa over which private actors felt they could exercise a degree of governance and control, and therefore extract profit. L’Afrique inutile, on the other hand, was the no-go area: places deemed too risky, too opaque and too wild for commercial profit. Until recently, it was difficult to convince multinationals to view Africa as usable and profitable because much economic activity took place in the unaccounted informal economy. With the exception of a few oil, gas and mineral installations and some export commodities like cocoa, cotton, tobacco, rubber, coffee, and tea, multinationals stayed out of the continent. Likewise, within the accounts of national public policy-making institutions, it was only the very narrow formal and recordable parts of the economy that were recorded. In a similar way that economists have traditionally excluded unpaid domestic labour from national accounts, most African states only scratched the surface of their populations’ true economic lives.

The mobile phone has undoubtedly changed the way private companies and public bodies view African economies. Firstly, the mobile phone has demonstrated that Africans can be voracious consumers at the bottom of the pyramid (paving the way for the distribution of other low-cost items such as soap, sanitary pads, soft drinks, etc.). While the colonial scramble for Africa focused on what lay in Africa’s lands and landscapes, the new scramble is focused on its people and markets (and workers; as the growing interest in business process outsourcing demonstrates).

Secondly, mobile phones (and other kinds of information and communication technologies) have created new channels of information about Africans and African markets, particularly in the informal sector. In an era where so much of the apparatus for measuring Africa’s economies has been weakened, this kind of data reaps enormous potential. One might say that the mobile phone and the internet have made former parts of l’Afrique inutile into l’Afrique utile—open for business, profit, analysis, and perhaps, control.

The ‘scramble for Africa’s data‘ is taking place within a particular historical trajectory of knowledge production. Africa has always been a laboratory for Western scientists and researchers, with local knowledge production often influenced by foreign powers and foreign ideas (think back to the early reliance on primary products for export, to which the entire colonial system of economic measurement and development planning was geared). Within the contemporary context of ever-expanding higher education and dwindling finances for local research, African academics and researchers have been forced to take on more and more consultancies and private contracts.

This ‘extraversion’ of African institutions of higher education has contributed to a re-orientation of the apparatus for academic research towards questions posed from outside. Within state bodies, similar processes are underway. Weakened by corruption, Structural Adjustment Policies (SAP), and pervasive informal economic activity, management of the economy has migrated from state institutions into the better paid offices of NGOs, consultancies and private companies. State capacity to measure and model is presently very weak, and African governments are therefore being encouraged to ‘open’ up their own records to non-state researchers. It is into this research context that big data emerges as a new source of ‘legibility’.

ICTs offer obvious benefits to economic researchers. They have often been heralded as offering potentially more democratic and participatory kinds of ‘legibility’. Their potential partly lies in the way that ICTs activate ‘social networks’ into infrastructures through which external actors can deliver and extract information. This ‘sociability’ makes them particularly suitable for studying informal economic networks. ICTs also offer the potential to modernise existing streams of data collection and broaden intra-institutional coordination, leading to better collaboration and more targeted public policy. In our project on the economic impacts of fibre optic broadband in East Africa, we have seen how institutions such as the Kenya Tea Board and the Rwandan Health Ministry are better integrating their information systems in order to gain a better national picture, and thereby contribute to industrial upgrading in the case of tea or better public services in the case of health. Nevertheless, big data is not accessible to all, and researchers must often prove commercial or strategic value in order to gain access.

Use of ‘big data’ is still a growing field, born within the discipline of computer science. My initial interviews with big data researchers working on Africa indicate they are still figuring out what kinds of questions can be answered with big data and how they might justify themselves and their methodologies to mainstream economics. Big data’s potential for hypothesis-building is somewhat at odds with the tradition of hypothesis-testing in economics. Big data researchers start with the question, ‘Where can this data lead me?’ There is also the question of how restricted access might frame research design. To date, the researchers that have been most successful in gaining access to African big data have worked with private companies, banks and financial institutions. It is therefore the incorporation and integration of poor people into private sector understandings that big data currently seems to offer.

This vision of development fits into a broader trend. Just as Hernando de Soto has argued that development is hampered by the exclusion of poor people from formalised property rights, proponents of microcredit have likewise argued it is the poor’s exclusion from financial institutions that limit their ability to develop self-sustaining enterprises. Researchers are therefore encouraged to use big data to model poor peoples’ actions and credit worthiness to incorporate them into financial systems, thereby transforming them from invisible selves into visible selves.

Critics of microfinance have cautioned that incorporating poor people into globalised structures of finance makes them more vulnerable to state interference in the form of taxes and to debt and international financial crises. It is also unclear what the drift into the private sector might do to wider understandings of poverty. While national measures situate citizens as members of national or collective groups, mobile financial innovations often focus on the individual’s financial records and credit worthiness. It remains to be seen whether this change of focus might move us away from more social definitions for poverty towards more individual or private explanations.

Likewise the flow of digital information across geographical space has the potential to change the nature of collaboration. As Mahmoud Mamdani has cautioned, “The global market tends to relegate Africa to providing raw material (“data”) to outside academics who process it and then re-export their theories back to Africa. Research proposals are increasingly descriptive accounts of data collection and the methods used to collate data, collaboration is reduced to assistance, and there is a general impoverishment of theory and debate”. This problem could potentially be exacerbated by open data initiatives that seek to get more people using publicly collected data. As Morten Jerven writes in his recent book, Poor Numbers, interactions between African data producers and users are currently limited, with users often unable to effectively assess the source and methods used to collect the original data. Nevertheless, such numbers are often taken at face value, with dubious policy recommendations formed as a result. While multiple sources of data (from the public and private sector) can help increase the precision of research and lead to better conclusions, we do not understand how big data (and open data) will impact the overall research environment in Africa.

My next project will examine these issues in relation to economic studies of unemployment in Egypt and financial inclusion in Uganda. The key objectives will be to improve our understanding of how data is being collected, how data is being communicated across groups and within systems, how new models of the economy are being formed, and what these changes are doing to political and economic relationships on the ground. Specifically, the project poses six interrelated questions: Where is economic intelligence and expertise currently located? What is being measured by whom, and how, and why? How do different tools of measurement change the way researchers understand economic truth and construct their models? How does more ‘legibility’ over African economies change power relations? What resistance or critical thinking exists within these new configurations of expertise? How can we combine approaches to assemble a fuller picture of economic understanding? The project will emphasise how economics, as a discipline, does not merely measure external reality, but helps to shape and influence that reality.

How we measure economies matters, particularly in the context of ever increasing evidence-based policy-making and with increasing interest from the private sector in Africa. Measurement often changes and shapes our realities of the external world. As Timothy Mitchell writes: “the practices that form the economy operate, in part, to establish equivalences, contain circulations, identify social actors or agents, make quantities and performances measurable, and designate relations of control and command”. In other words, researchers cannot make sense of an economy without first establishing a research infrastructure through which subjects are measured and incorporated. The particular shape, tools and technologies of that research infrastructure help frame and construct economic models and truth.

Such frames also have political implications, as control over information often strengthens one group over others. Indeed, as James C. Scott’s work Seeing Like a State has shown, the struggle to establish legibility over societies is inherently political. Elites have always attempted to standardise and regularise more marginal groups in an effort to draw them into dominant political and economic orders. However, legibility does not have be ‘top-down’. Weaker groups suffer most from illegible societies, and can benefit from more legibility. As information and trust become more deeply embedded within stronger ties and within transnational networks of skill and expertise, marginalised ‘out groups’ are particularly disadvantaged.

While James C. Scott’s work highlighted the dangers of a high modernist ‘legibility’, the very absence of legibility can also disempower marginal groups. It is the kind of legibility at stake that is important. While big data offers enormous potential for economists to better understand what is going on in Africa’s informal economies, economic sociologists, anthropologists and historians must remind them how our tools and measurements influence systems of knowledge production and change our understandings and beliefs about the external world. Africa might be becoming ‘more usable’ and ‘more legible,’ but we need to ask, for whom, by whom, and for what purpose?


Dr Laura Mann is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. Her research focuses on the political economy of markets and value chains in Africa. Her current research examines the effects of broadband internet on the tea, tourism and outsourcing value chains of Kenya and Rwanda. From January 2014 she will be based at the African Studies Centre at Leiden University. Read Laura’s blog.

New issue of Policy and Internet (2,3)

Welcome to the third issue of Policy & Internet for 2010. We are pleased to present five articles focusing on substantive public policy issues arising from widespread use of the Internet: regulation of trade in virtual goods; development of electronic government in Korea; online policy discourse in UK elections; regulatory models for broadband technologies in the US; and alternative governance frameworks for open ICT standards.

Three of the articles are the first to be published from the highly successful conference ‘Internet, Politics and Policy‘ held by the journal in Oxford, 16th-17th September 2010. You may access any of the articles below at no charge.

Helen Margetts: Editorial

Vili Lehdonvirta and Perttu Virtanen: A New Frontier in Digital Content Policy: Case Studies in the Regulation of Virtual Goods and Artificial Scarcity

Joon Hyoung Lim: Digital Divides in Urban E-Government in South Korea: Exploring Differences in Municipalities’ Use of the Internet for Environmental Governance

Darren G. Lilleker and Nigel A. Jackson: Towards a More Participatory Style of Election Campaigning: The Impact of Web 2.0 on the UK 2010 General Election

Michael J. Santorelli: Regulatory Federalism in the Age of Broadband: A U.S. Perspective

Laura DeNardis: E-Governance Policies for Interoperability and Open Standards

New issue of Policy and Internet (2,2)

Welcome to the second issue of Policy & Internet for 2010! We are pleased to present six articles which investigate the role of the Internet in a wide range of policy processes and sectors: agenda setting in online and traditional media; environmental policy networks; online deliberation on climate change; data protection and privacy; net neutrality; and digital inclusion/exclusion. You may access any of the articles below at no charge.

Helen Margetts: Editorial

Ben Sayre, Leticia Bode, Dhavan Shah, Dave Wilcox, and Chirag Shah: Agenda Setting in a Digital Age: Tracking Attention to California Proposition 8 in Social Media, Online News and Conventional News

Kathleen McNutt and Adam Wellstead: Virtual Policy Networks in Forestry and Climate Change in the U.S. and Canada: Government Nodality, Internationalisation and Actor Complexity

Julien Talpin and Stéphanie Wojcik: Deliberating Environmental Policy Issues: Comparing the Learning Potential of Online and Face-To-Face Discussions on Climate Change

Andrew A. Adams, Kiyoshi Murata, and Yohko Orito: The Development of Japanese Data Protection

Scott Jordan: The Application of Net Neutrality to Wireless Networks Based on Network Architecture

Alison Powell, Amelia Bryne, and Dharma Dailey: The Essential Internet: Digital Exclusion in Low-Income American Communities