A networked recovery

Can a $70bn investment in broadband networks world-wide reshape the global economy?

Will building networks really ease us out of the global recession? According to a recent OECD report, many of the current financial stimulus packages are based, at least in part, on the notion that building network infrastructure can both help revive the economy and address social issues.

This 'networked recovery' relies on extending the reach of broadband and upgrading networks to support very high-speed communications. Many countries plan to use their investment to provide universal broadband coverage, using public money to take networks to places for which private operators could not make a business case. Some are planning to spend their money building very high-speed next-generation networks as well.

These networks will also be enablers for investments in information and communications technology (ICT) in other sectors, such as education and health. These could far outstrip those made in the networks themselves - the US, for example, plans to spend $19bn on healthcare ICT compared with $7bn on broadband.

The $70bn global broadband roll-out should help more people, especially the disenfranchised, to take part in the digital economy. But there's a catch. In our first feature, Pelle Neroth highlights (p69) the importance of decisions being made in Brussels about access to new fibre-optic networks. Should the people who build them have total control over their use? Or should some level of open access be a condition of public support?

Paul Dempsey's piece about the situation in the US (p74) reflects concerns about how this 'once-in-a-lifetime' opportunity is being handled. There are the usual gripes about fairness and bureaucracy. And the law of unintended consequences is at work here, too. America's plan to accelerate the roll-out of broadband may have caused some operators to postpone work they already had planned, in the hope of qualifying for stimulus funds.

Meanwhile in Asia, Brian Fuller (p71) finds that many are relying on China's massive stimulus plan to revive the manufacturing economy and breathe new life into the country's 3G mobile standard, which has had a troubled birth but now stands to gain from a subsidised infrastructure roll-out. In the main section of the magazine, William Knight (p22) looks at perhaps the boldest broadband plan on the planet - in Australia - where the government has decided to bring high-speed broadband to as much of its scattered population as it can.

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