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The curious thing about demand and networks
Empirical findings from a case study on fibre optics networks (30.07.2023)
Förderjahr 2022 / Stipendien Call #17 / ProjektID: 6403 / Projekt: Fibre alongside the Power Lines

I have tried, in the course of this blog series, to prepare you for thinking along with me today.(1) We went through the digital divide and how broadband strategies try to decrease the differences between rural and urban areas. We then took a look at how networks move, and why the broadband strategy of Burgenland has chosen an energy provider to implement its measures. Our next step was to take a closer look at what fibre optics networks do and what they can mean, in particular in rural areas, before launching into an exploration of my approach to understanding demand. This is where we made our way through understanding ‘demand’ as something which is not merely there, or given, but enacted through practices.

Our aim today is to build on these elements and grapple with the practices that ‘do’ demand in the situated context of my case study. Yes, we have now arrived at some of the results of my work, and this is also a good moment to discuss the limitations of my approach – which we will do at the end. First, however, let us take a closer look at why the way in which we enact demand matters when we deploy networks.

Demand in geographic space

When you build a network, you have a number of choices to make. Amongst them, you need to decide who (or what!) you are going to connect to the network. This will be our first concern.

The broadband strategy of Burgenland starts out with a very particular problem: in its view, the available broadband networks are rather poor in the less populous regions of Southern and Central Burgenland. In fact, it draws on a certain framework of thinking about broadband networks, namely the State Aid Guidelines, to focus on very particular places in these regions. To be concise,(2) as far as the broadband strategy is concerned, demand can be geographically parcelled into 100x100m squares where networks offer less than 30 Mbit/s download speeds, or where there is one network which offers less than 100 Mbit/s download speeds. In this view, demand for fibre optics networks is in those places where there aren’t any higher-speed networks.

From a social science perspective, we have arrived at a very interesting insight. After all, the networks were built the way they were because someone made a decision about where to put the networks. This brings us to our next point, which relates to demand becoming worth the cost of deploying networks.

Demand that is worth it

Once you have decided who (or what) should be connected to the network once it is built, you also need to start calculating how much it costs to get the network there. These calculations act as a sieve: once they are performed, only those nuggets which are ‘worth it’ remain potential candidates for becoming connected to a network.

In many ways, network deployment revolves around costs. If you divide the cost of deploying the network by the number of premises (making due consideration for how many of these are likely to subscribe to your network), centres are cheaper to connect to than the margins. The periphery is usually less well-connected than the centre because the total costs drop significantly if you disregard the (literal) outliers. That is why not all areas have high-speed broadband networks in the first place: demand in these locations is too expensive to satisfy.

But these are the areas that are a priority for the broadband strategy – and this demand is worthy of (3) being met, from its perspective. In order to make that calculation work, the broadband strategy takes a wider range of factors into consideration, like the environmental cost of people commuting long distances to work and the social cost of people and businesses leaving rural areas. These broader concerns are bundled together in an approach termed Daseinsvorsorge. Meaning something along the lines of ‘to make provisions for the possibility of existence (or something/someone existing) in the future’, this concept leads us away from the question of who is worthy of being connected to a network to why are certain networks worth having and how to make deployment worth it despite the higher costs.

Demand in a cross-infrastructural context

Among several strategies to make deploying networks beyond the centres worthwhile, the broadband strategy has chosen a very common one – namely, linking fibre optics networks to other infrastructures. This move effectively splits the cost of civil works between two infrastructures, thereby reducing the impact of the most expensive part of network deployment.

While this phenomenon merits attention in its own right, my focus rested on what happens to the notion of demand when infrastructures are supposed to go together. Placing demand in the harder-to-reach areas of Southern and Central Burgenland, where higher-speed networks do not exist or are lonesome, and then placing a subsidiary of an energy provider in the position of finding ways and means (including public funding) to get fibre optics networks there, has a few consequences that were unexpected to me.(4)

Take overhead power lines, for instance. For an energy provider, overhead power lines may become a source of risk, for instance if they run through a forest. This risk is addressed by putting the power lines under ground, sooner or later, which of course necessitates civil works. Or take wind turbines, which an energy provider needs to connect to the energy network. In both of these instances, the energy network has to move – either from above ground into ducts below the earth, or expand to a new location.

The broadband strategy latches onto these movements of the energy network to make deployment worthwhile. Under these circumstances, demand for fibre optics networks becomes viable because it is placed into a specific relation with the energy network. That is, demand for fibre optics networks in the very specific conceptualisation of the broadband strategy becomes more worthwhile – easier to reach, cheaper to connect – because there is a forest between the area of demand and the nearest fibre optics network. Or because there is a new wind turbine in the area, which needs to be connected, and because the wind turbine needs to be connected to the energy network, it becomes easier to deploy a backhaul network to a remote region. What we are left with are ways of placing demand into relation with infrastructures that are, in their own right, distinct ways of enacting demand.

What case studies do

Now, case studies are not meant for generalisation. Their purpose is to follow along in detail what is happening in a very limited space: to go deeper rather than cover a broad area. For this thesis, I conducted an in-depth document analysis (focusing on the broadband strategy of Burgenland, but including other documents of various importance), three instances of participant observation, and two interviews with people who were, in one way or another, directly involved in these happenings.(5)

However, case studies are important to test out new approaches and gain new perspectives from detailed analysis of this small space. Attending to the practices involved in making demand into something that deployment can hinge on is therefore more than a thought-experiment. Indeed, what these practices show us, quite clearly, is that there is nothing natural about ‘demand’. We can question how demand is done, when it is done, and who is left out through or from various ‘demand-doings’. Moreover, we can see that there are very real consequences when a concept such as ‘demand’ is enacted.

Such an approach to understanding the digital divide is quite useful, I think. For one, it takes us beyond the inevitability we often find in literature on the digital divide – as if it were a fact of life or a random misfortune that rural areas are worse off in terms of broadband networks, and as if we could compare the efforts to close the digital divide with the ‘hopelessness’ of the fight against cancer. More importantly, asking about the practices which enact demand when networks are deployed opens up space to create our own alternatives. What makes sense, what is worth it, can be very different once you start including other factors, like when you start applying the framework of Daseinsvorsorge.

Last but not least

With this blog post, I wanted to introduce you to the centrepiece of my research (yes, there is more!) without getting either too abstract or too detailed. For this reason, I focused on three concrete practices that I found which contributed to enacting demand, each in their own way, in the framework of the broadband strategy of Burgenland. We went from where demand may be found to judging which demand warrants satisfaction given the overall financial cost of the project, and ended with what happens when you add the energy infrastructure into the mix, at which point satisfying demand becomes easier under conditions that pertain to the energy infrastructure – and, in fact, have no obvious relation to the digital divide.

I will not end here, actually, because I have a bit more to say on how these findings relate to other literature on fibre optics network deployment, on the digital divide and some of the STS literature I drew on for my research. The gap between disciplines where I situated my case study is rather large, and case studies are meant to be small – all the more important, then, for me to connect some of the dots by way of conclusion, and invite you to come along.


1 My master’s thesis is in the field of Science-Technology-Society Studies at the University of Vienna. I also work for the Austrian telecommunications regulator (RTR). Although the topic of my thesis falls into the field of telecommunications, this study is my own academic work and is not connected to the regulatory activities of RTR or TKK; in particular, the views expressed here are my own and do not prejudge the decisions taken by these regulatory bodies.

2 For those interested in the details: the framework applied here are the State Aid Guidelines, which set out the regions where network deployment may receive public funding. The regions of concern to the broadband strategy are the white and grey areas – that is, respectively, areas without networks offering over 30 Mbit/s download speeds, or areas with at most one network offering up to 100 Mbit/s download speeds. I dive into these issues at length in my thesis, especially in chapter 4, section 2.1.2.

3 ‘Worthy of broadband deployment’ is an intentionally strong formulation because it shows us how calculation and valuation, even if ‘merely’ economic, always entail classification and social judgment. In chapter 4, section 2.3., I discuss how these ways of doing demand otherwise may play out in practice.

4 For a full account of the implications and more examples, see chapter 4 section 3 of my thesis.

5 For a full account of my methodological choices, please see chapter 3 of my thesis.

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