National information infrastructure

The universal access issue

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The universal access issue

Public authorities and politicians regularly insist on the necessity to avoid that some people be excluded from the Information society. Universal access to IS which was proposed by the Théry report has been endorsed by the French government. So did the G7 at its Brussels meeting: "governments will have to preserve provision and access to services to all citizens (universal service ), promote equal opportunity to all in the information age, and preserve and encourage the diversity of the content of information, in particular concerning its cultural and linguistic aspects" Yet, one can wonder how universal access will be effectively implemented and financed. Is it not just rhetoric, a lip service to pay for the liberalization of telecommunications?

It should be first kept in mind that the concept of universal service was not originally shaped but social goals, but linked to the telephone industry need for an integrated market which would generate scales economies. Vail championed universal service as an ideal because it furthered his drive to achieve political support for the elimination of competition and the establishment of regulated monopoly (Mueller, 1993, p. 365). It is only in the 60s that the universal service concept took on an egalitarian color when competition and antitrust lawsuits threatened to unravel the Bell system. Universal service then became a convenient defense for the preservation of the Bell system (Sawhney, 1994). There is some kind of rhetoric talk about universal service: its social glamour is used by groups only when it furthers their private agendas.

While the definition of universal service may look simple to understand, different meanings and expectations are often associated to the concept. When French use the term of universal service, it is likely not in the same sense than American or Brussels people. Yet, up to December 1995, many of them would see universal service as just a modern label given to the old concept of public service. They would understand universal service as encompassing social or political goals (what French call missions d'intérêt général). The public debate which took place around the social movement of November and December 1995 put an end to this confusion and led the French government to commit itself to defending the "service public à la française". In the telecommunications field, this will mean a contribution of operators to various tasks which meet the general interest of the society. These include: internal security and defense, fundamental research, public telecommunications training centers, development of rural or remote areas.

Such a definition will have an tremendous impact on the development of competition in France: new entrants will be expected to make a 25 billion FF contribution per year to finance the "service public" charges39. It might also complicate further negotiations at the European level on the harmonization of the regulatory framework.

In a cynical way, universal service can be considered as a trade-off between telecommunications operators and governments, in which the former would provide a sort of social net for being granted more freedom in their market. In this perspective, the definition of universal service, for operators, would consist in reaching the equilibrium point where the political acceptance of liberalization is maximized and the associated social costs are minimized. Depending on the telecommunications politics which exists in each country, the scope of universal service will be more or less broad.

Yet, universal service may be more than a token to pay in order to enter a liberalized market. The definition of universal service opens a critical moment in the building of IS because it raises the question of people's fundamental needs and of the values hierarchy which exist in any society. As such it can reveal or catalyze social, cultural or political concerns, which so far have not been seriously dealt with by policy-makers. The outcome of this process is uncertain: some groups or countries may be using it to voice their dissent or challenge the current IS policies. For instance, a "right to isolation" - was recently asked for in France40.. Although marginal, this claim expresses a reaction to an Information society in which anybody can be reached at anytime. Other demands of this sort can appear. If they are granted, universal service could, ironically enough, leads to a local disintegration of the concept of Information society.

A lack of political and ethical vision

In Europe and in France, liberalization is often said to be the key word to IS. But, one can actually wonder whether IS is not just a code name for liberalization.

As Schneider pointed out (Schneider, 1995), the European debate on IS compared to the NII initiative is characterized by two features:

· the American initiative emphasizes much more the societal and social potential of IS (for example, their possible contribution to democratic life or to education) than the European policy which is more driven by commercial interests;

· the American policy process is more open than the European one. In the US, a much more diverse array of interests had access to the different policy arenas through public hearings and institutionalized representation in the NII advisory council. The European policy has been shaped more "secretly" and restricted to technocratic experts committees with a clear over representation of industrial interests. It is only recently that interest representation was broadened by the establishment of the European "Information Society Forum" in which experts and qualified persons from different countries will address social and political issues.

The lack of democracy in European actions toward the Information society has been underlined on several occasions. During the G7 meeting in Brussels in February 1995, a counter-summit was held by about 30 French and Belgian organizations, including trade unions and the Belgian Greens, to denounce the lack of democratic debate surrounding the cultural, political and social stakes of the information age. Participants, including academics, artists and Euro-MPs, lashed out at the important role of industrialists in shaping the society of the future. On March 23-24 1995, the Council of Europe held a colloquium on "Electronic Democracy"; which criticized the European Union for not addressing enough the impact of the Information society on political life.

It is interesting to note that these groups are not radically opposed to IS. They do not emphasize the sole risks of the information society. They also recognize the potential benefits that the Information society could bring about. In other terms, while policy makers and industry focuses on the technical shaping of the information society, there is a demand for a social shaping of the information society.

The diffusion of information services depends not only on technical infrastructures but also on "social infrastructures". If we are to move to an information society, it will not suffice to upgrade networks, ensure their technical interconnection and interoperability, or change the regulatory arrangements. Social structures also have to be adjusted.

The task is not easy in France. As the social crisis of November-December 1995 has demonstrated, the French society is not still apt and fully prepared to a global economy. The vote on the Maastricht treaty and subsequent pollings have shown that a significant number of French people are reluctant to the single market and the single European currency. As Jacques Delors put it: "Si les élites ont leur tête dans le monde global, la population a encore les pieds dans le territoire national". (While elites have their mind in the global world, people still have their feet in national territories).

Compared to the US, where IS are the object of emphatic declarations, the French policy for IS clearly lacks a political and ethical vision, which would encompass current IS developments into a broader social project and help mobilize people. Besides their economic rationale, French public statements on IS demonstrate a very poor, no to say non-existent, symbolic. Even in the domain of rhetoric, which is supposed to be the prime locus of politics, there is a withdrawal of the French government. Should it be that French do not want to have a dream?

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