Friday, 9 March 2012

Bridging the divide, over distance and time

Sophia Christou

One of the key goals of the Australian Government’s National Digital Economy Strategy is to increase levels of digital engagement in regional areas, and to narrow the digital divide between regional and metropolitan communities and businesses. Rollout and take-up of the National Broadband Network (NBN) and the opportunities it presents – according to the policy, to increase access to infrastructure and services, ultimately raising productivity across regions – is seen as one means of achieving this.

Amidst heated debate over the politics, costs and outcomes associated with the Government’s NBN policy, it is worth reflecting upon some of the motivations underlying this emphasis on regional access to technology. Concerns about equitable access to services and information, national development goals and maintaining connections with regional life in the midst of technological change are anything but new.

During the 1920s, the new medium of radio was allowed to develop as an experimental technology largely in the absence of state oversight. Over the course of the decade, Australian politicians of all colours gradually recast the medium as one with great potential for assisting national progress, keeping the country’s small, widely-spread population informed and connected. Relying upon the constitutional grant of power in respect of communication technologies such as telephones and telegraphs, the Bruce Government (National/Country Party coalition) pressed ahead in the late 1920s in regulating the expansion of radio infrastructure and overseeing licensing systems for radio stations.

General Electric radio, circa 1952
One of the foremost reasons presented by the Government for establishing a national public radio service was the continuing neglect of many regional areas by early commercial radio stations. Regional population levels meant that broadcasting as a commercial undertaking in some of these areas was not financially viable. As part of the solution, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) was established by statute in 1932 as a national radio service, funded by public money and with responsibilities for broadcasting information and entertainment that would be of value to all audiences, regional as well as urban.

Efforts to maintain access to technology and information for regional audiences were not limited to government. We see this reflected in the business practices of audience survey firms that compiled ratings data – first for radio, and later, television. Two major firms dominated the Australian ratings business up until the 1970s – McNair and Anderson Analysis.

George Anderson recognised the importance of the ratings results particularly for small regional television stations serving local viewers, despite the challenges and costs often involved when surveying regional audiences. These types of services were a source of up-to-date information and entertainment for their communities, but because they were still essentially commercial undertakings, their continued existence relied on convincing station owners and advertisers of financial viability. In these cases, ratings data was not just a business service for station operators and advertisers; Anderson took the view that the integrity and accuracy of his service could play a part in representing the interests of regional audiences in an industry that concentrated mostly on metropolitan audience preferences.

Whether we are looking back at the earliest days of broadcasting, or forward to the digital economy goals of the current Government, we find an enduring interest in promoting the engagement and visibility of regional populations in media and digital landscapes. Arguably, this means more than just connecting regional populations to information and entertainment created for urban users. The connection moves in both directions. The need to maintain a collective consciousness of regional life seems to take on greater significance when technological advances – radio, television, digital media and ecommerce – threaten a greater separation between the reality of a largely metropolitan population and a service-based economy, and how we would like to remember or imagine ourselves to be.

From a pragmatic point of view, equitable access to digital infrastructure and services is of course fundamental to the national interest in economic growth and maintaining standards of living in both regional and metropolitan areas. It might also be said that ongoing efforts to promote regional access to technology are about more than just the interests of regional populations. Drawing attention to these interests, and more importantly, encouraging the visibility of regional life through local media forms and digital services, is one way of maintaining identification with the iconography and nostalgia associated with country Australia at a national level.

Image by Fernando Candeias, made available by Creative Commons licence via Flickr.

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