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Technological developments continue to bring about significant changes in cultural and economic life in Asia Pacific. The most significant changes are coming about through three linked areas of innovation: broadband, convergence and wireless. These technological changes reshape the social and economic opportunities that are available in the online environment.
Broadband diffusion is continuing at a rapid pace. At the technological level, DSL has established itself as the dominant protocol for broadband delivery among regions with a high investment in fixed-line Plain Standard Telephone Network (PSTN) infrastructure. The growth in available bandwidth via broadband changes the kind of content that is available to users, because of two distinctive characteristics.
First, broadband is 'always-on', which means that broadband Internet networks take on the form of a utility or basic service, in the same way that telephone or broadcast networks are consistently available. This means that Voice over IP (VoIP), for example, can become a viable replacement for the telephone, although the opportunities to significantly decrease telephony costs are somewhat offset by the lack of control and reliability that nations expect from critical infrastructure. Who gets to decide what is 'good enough' for service delivery remains a critical issue.
The second effect of broadband is in expanded bandwidth, which means that the online distribution of audiovisual material increases. This distribution mechanism replaces broadcast networks for many young and affluent consumers who engage in 'series stacking' (downloading many episodes of a series at once) or downloading pre-release music or movies. Further, the growth in processing power of the personal computer now allows users to treat their personal computer as a music and photo library, video player and home video editing suite. Users increasingly send their own audio-visual content among Internet networks, and this has led to the growth of popular user-generated content services such as the video-sharing site YouTube and the photography website Flickr. The expanded possibilities for audio-visual Internet communication among those without high levels of text literacy should not be underestimated.
The Asian region is a world leader in the development of broadband, with countries such as South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan having high penetration rates and offering new kinds of applications and services through high-speed data.
Convergence is coming to the fore, as previously distinct forms of media (radio, music stores, television, film, telephony) are now both emulated by and reconfigured within Internet networks. These raise challenging business and regulatory issues for communications regulators who have previously relied on regulation of different physical infrastructure for specific media forms. For example, spectrum allocation allowed for a finite number of free-to-air television and radio broadcasters and this also meant that content control via the broadcasters was a relatively simple affair. In the new media environment where content from a particular producer may be hosted offshore, and with an infinite number of content 'channels', maintaining complete control over local content is almost impossible. There are important cultural policy implications: for example, the concept of a 'quota' of local programming may no longer be appropriate in a non-channel based environment.
There is a continuing proliferation of mobile devices and wireless networks, facilitating both increased movement and reduced costs for 'last mile' delivery. In their country chapter in this volume, Ananya Raihan and Shah M. Ahsan Habib note that Bangladesh had 12.6 million phone users in April 2006, an increase of more than tenfold from 1.2 million phone users in 2001. During the same period, fixed line subscribers merely doubled. This reflects the central role that wireless and mobile technologies now play in extending the reach of communications networks in developing countries.
Platform choice for cell spectrum is also critical in a developing country with limited resources. In highly developed market economies, there is sufficient investment capability to allow firms to establish competing infrastructure (for example, both GSM and CDMA). For developing countries, a combination of donor and private sector investments from foreign countries will influence the technological platform that is deployed. This platform choice may have far-reaching consequences in the future.
Innovative mobile operators are embracing the changes that are occurring. As Keisuke Kamimura and Adam Peake point out in this volume, in Japan 600,000 'one-seg' telephones capable of receiving digital television broadcasts were sold in the first three months of the service being available. While this is encouraging, customized content still cannot be produced due to licensing regulations and a range of unresolved issues such as royalties, which are disbursed according to a system designed for a standard television environment. As usual, regulators are on the back foot with respect to the new technological developments.
Once again, Asia is playing a leading role in the deployment of wireless. While Japan has long been a leader in the provision of mobile data services such as i-mode, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines are becoming recognized for their role at the forefront of the 'mobile information society'.
An important issue with respect to mobile and wireless is security. In a fixed line environment, it is usually possible to track the source of a particular communication made over a network. With the emergence of pre-pay calling and wireless Internet, such tracking is not always possible. Different policy remedies are available. For example, Australia requires identification to be shown at the point of sale of prepaid calling services (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2006), although such initiatives also raise privacy issues.
Overall, recent developments reflect the ongoing reality that technological change will continue to occur quickly and regulatory or business propositions that are tightly tied to particular technological solutions are at risk of becoming redundant when these conditions change. A focus on developing the capacity to adapt to change and developing a clear picture of the desired social, economic and cultural objectives, whether in public or private sector bodies, is required.