Förderjahr 2022 / Stipendien Call #17 / ProjektID: 6403 / Projekt: Fibre alongside the Power Lines
Reading this blog post, I wonder whether you know what your internet connection is based on. Is it a mobile network, maybe shared to a laptop via a hotspot? Are you connected via WiFi, or a LAN cable – and what kind of network is behind it? These seem like highly technical questions, but they are also related to where you currently are: at home, on the train, at work. Sometimes, the question of the network is also related to where your home is, because certain networks are more likely to be built in some places rather than in others. Other times, your workplace might be the reason why certain networks are available in this area.
My research interest (1) lies in understanding why fibre optics networks are built in certain areas rather than others. My master’s thesis in the field of Science-Technology-Society studies is therefore focused on what I call “practices of demand in converging infrastructures”: it is a case study of fibre optics network deployment in Burgenland. For this blog series, I would like to discuss some (2) of the key aspects of my thesis, and I would like to start with one of the main issues: the differences between rural and urban areas in terms of access to fixed broadband infrastructure.
Infrastructures are a tricky matter: they tend to fold into the background for the majority of people, but for those who do engage with them, infrastructures are infinitely complex (Star, 1999; Star & Bowker in Liuvrouw & Livingstone (Eds) 2006). Telecommunications infrastructures work the same way. While the services they enable are ever-present, what happens beyond the router, cube or mobile device is not particularly interesting for most people.
This makes it a bit challenging for me to find a place to start, so I will start with a small place in Southern Burgenland, at the very border of Austria. Thanks to open data, you can actually join me on this exploration via the Austrian Broadband Atlas, which we will start in Großmürbisch. Here, most houses have access to a fixed connection which provides them with 2-3 Mbit/s download and < 1 Mbit/s upload speeds. Some houses have access to a fixed connection with 30 Mbit/s download and 10-30 Mbit/s upload speeds (which can be accessed via WiFi). Some do not have any fixed connections. All in all, the situation is quite similar to other underserved municipalities in Central and Southern Burgenland.
Since I am at my university’s library at the Neues Institutsgebäude in Vienna while writing this post, let us check what kinds of fixed connections are offered here. Not too shabby – the ‘worst’ fixed connection offered provides 1000 Mbit/s download and 50 Mbit/s upload speeds (others offer 1000 Mbit/s upload). Regarding fixed telecommunications infrastructure, Großmürbisch and the Neues Institutsgebäude are at least 970 Mbit/s apart in terms of download speeds (and 20 Mbit/s for upload).
This is what is called the digital divide in terms of access. Some rural areas in Austria have access only to telecommunications infrastructures which offer less than their urban counterparts.(3) For instance, according to one of the Austrian comparison websites, 2 Mbit/s download are sufficient for almost all streaming services (provided that one person is streaming in regular quality, and no other services are used simultaneously). Streaming in HD, 4K or UHD is simply not possible. Hence, these differences in access mean that in rural areas like parts of Großmürbisch, the Internet cannot be used the same way that it can be used in urban areas like the Neues Institutsgebäude (at least using fixed networks). But this is a story others have looked into before – see Gerli & Whalley (2021) for instance. For my thesis, what is important is the following: there is a difference in the way that fixed networks are deployed (i.e., built) in rural and in urban areas which leads to differences in access.
Aiming for connectivity for all
A digital divide in terms of access is not an outcome that people are trying to achieve: quite the opposite, actually. But before looking into which efforts are made to counter the digital divide, let us briefly dwell on why these differences arise in the first place. One of the reasons for these differences is that when you calculate the cost per potential subscriber, urban areas are cheaper to deploy fixed networks to than rural areas: there are simply more people on every street, and every cable can reach a higher number of premises. A higher population density also signifies more potential sources of future revenue (Curram et al., 2019). These circumstances are not advantageous for fixed network deployment in rural areas, which have less dense settlements structures and fewer residents, and are also more likely to be underserved.
With this context in mind, let us go back to Burgenland. As we saw earlier, Internet access via fixed networks is not the same everywhere. In its broadband strategy, Burgenland is trying to address these differences in terms of access by increasing the deployment of broadband and particularly fibre optics networks (Amt der Burgenländischen Landesregierung, 2021). This strategy forms part of a wider context of policies aiming to improve access to broadband infrastructure, both at the Austrian as well as at the European level. Like its counterparts, the broadband strategy sets targets which shall be reached, and to some extent, they overlap with these other targets – such as the latest targets at EU level calling for all households to have a 100 Mbit/s connection by 2025 (European Commission, 2021).
Amongst other points, the aims of Burgenland’s broadband strategy include fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) deployment in three underserved cadastral municipalities annually in coordination with electricity network expansion, starting from 2021 (Amt der Burgenländischen Landesregierung, 2021, p. 66). This means that in areas with no or little broadband coverage via fixed networks – such as Großmürbisch –, a network capable of the same speeds (amongst other things) as those networks which are available at the Neues Institutsgebäude shall be built.
Earlier, we observed that there are differences between rural and urban areas in terms of access to fixed network infrastructure. With the help of broadband strategies, such as the one in Burgenland, policy makers aim to overcome these differences by setting out where to deploy networks, or which kinds of capacities these networks should have. But the question remains: who will build those networks?
This the question I would like to address in the next blog post, and we will also approach the topic of “converging infrastructures” in this particular context – hopefully shedding some light on the circumstances that make this case stand out. Having looked into the why and the who, I would then like to talk a bit more about how fibre optics networks are considered to be different from other types of networks, and why they are important to rural municipalities. And with all of these bases covered, I will move on to the question of demand in the context of deployment. Stay tuned!
1 General disclaimer: I 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 Just to be clear: I am not at all concerned with questions of substitutability of fixed and mobile technologies. My research interest lies in one particular fixed network, namely fibre optics networks, and what such a case can tell us about how infrastructures may be deployed. Other types of networks are relevant only insofar as they change how/where fibre optics networks are deployed.
3 I have included these examples to better illustrate what these speeds mean in practice. I am not making any claims about the broadband speeds required for everyday activities, and this is also not part of my research project.