Digitalisation and the Internet

In Sweden, as well as in many other countries, digitalisation is in full swing. Since the end of the 19th century, Sweden has been working to make society more efficient with the help of technology and that friendliness to technology still exists. As a very sparsely populated country we have special needs, but also enormous opportunities. On top of this, to increase the country’s competitiveness, productivity must be increased, and the easiest way to increase productivity is to add technology. However, whether this increases productivity depends on how the technology is added. If it is only added to existing processes, the gain is marginal. As if employees are given better working environment, longer vacation, better coffee etc. All important things. But, if you want to take a leap forward, you have to work in a different way. You have to change the processes you have in the way that is possible thanks to the IT tools. It is thus process changes that increase efficiency. Not doing the same things in a different way. Addition of IT tools can even make processes more ineffective, as the processes have already been optimized during the years the processes have existed. You do not improve processes and gain effectiveness by adding IT to existing processes, you win by changing the processes. But we have made such changes for many years, so what makes digitalisation so special today? Well, there are two different technical innovations that emerge at the same time. The first is the ability to digitize things, the formal definition of digitalisation. Everything from documents, texts and images to music, moving images and three-dimensional objects. Smell and taste are still two senses that we have not seen breakthroughs with, but we will, I’m sure. We have been able to digitize information (for the end user) since the 1970’s when we got those features in typewriters. The second is the Internet, the ability to move data, and that without for example having different charges based on distance. That it is possible to move data not only between Nässjö and Jönköping, but also all the way to Melbourne is a big thing. If you combine these two, digitize data and Internet, then we get something that is at least as revolutionary as when we got railroad and dynamite at the same time. Building railways without being able to blast efficiently and in a safe way was extremely difficult, expensive and ineffective. The arrival of dynamite was great success … well, I do not need to explain that in much more detail. Internet and digitalisation, two changes, inventions one can call then, which together provides the opportunity for the change of processes. Make the changes that are particularly important to get effectiveness in the society. But once again, we gain efficiency only if we change the processes themselves. We see failures in the news almost every day. I claim that if the IT department is driving thee bus and attempts to add IT tools to processes, we can get a result that is anything between relatively ok (repetitive steps disappear) to real failures. Or in plain language, too many projects derail in a royal way. This is also what Jonas Söderström writes in his book Jävla Skitsystem, which I highly recommend. Changes should therefore be carried out by the process owner. The person who has the obligation to deliver something. Who has the task to get something done given the resources he has got. But the task should not specify how it should be done. If the how question is specified, or the resources too limited and because of that the request does not leave room for innovation, then we have another problem, but that is a completely different discussion. Anyway, therefore, people like me (that work with IT) should not lead the changes. It is the same old process owner who make the change. But it’s always hard to make big changes because it might require anything from moving to a different building to major changes in staff, i.e. lots of HR issues. Often staff cuts in one part of the organisation and addition of staff in other. Which in part due to the employment conditions we have in Sweden and elsewhere makes these process changes difficult and painful, but definitely not impossible. I have therefore waited a long time for the government to seriously talk about a digitalisation of the society . We wrote about it in the Government’s IT Policy Strategy Group in our final report 2006, Politics for the IT Society (and earlier reports), describing how the society changed from my home is my castle to the two movements Swedes in the world (ie. that those who consider themselves belonging to Sweden will request the same support wherever they are in the world) and Sweden as a meeting place (ie, Sweden as a geographical area must be attractive place to meet, establish businesses in and move to. At last the government has taken a big step forward. Not only has a Digitalisation Council been established, but the unit responsible for IT-Policy at the Ministry of Enterprise is called the Digitalisation Unit. Those steps are good, and I hope they can attack the various problems in society as a whole. I’m a bit pessimistic, however, because given these steps it is not clear to me people in the Government Offices understand changes of existing processes are needed, not the addition of IT to existing processes. NOTE: The government on the 17th of May 2017 released a report on Digitalisation Strategy. I am sorry to say it emphasises what I write in this blog post.

But the biggest problem I see is the need for both efficient digitalisation and efficient Internet so that the two forces can interact. Of course, it is understood that what the Government calls Digitalisation is more Digitalisation of Society than the technical view of the term I have, but looking at the composition of the Digitalisation Council and other groups (and the report of May 17, 2017), it is just the subset of digitalisation of the society that I call digitalisation of information and material that they focus on, and they take for granted Internet access just works. Internet access then, or broadband as it is called? Am I not sorry that it is not as included as in previous governments? Of course I am. First of all, I of course think my questions are most important ones 😃. Just as everyone thinks their horse is the most beautiful and fastest. Even if it does not turn out to be it. The problem is that broadband buildout is, as we decided in the 1980s, primarily driven by market economy forces. Certainly, there are municipal and other public activities that participate in broadband expansion, but they also to do it according to market economy terms. To be effective, market forces must be kept under control with subsidies and supervision where necessary. And keeping them under control is needed. It is the wild wild west out there. Where everyone complains about everyone else. Nobody is satisfied. Cooperation? Not so much. There are different groups out there, such as SSNF, IT & Telekomföretagen, SKL, SOF, Bredbandsforum and others. But each one is quite clearly dominated by a certain business model and certain interests. In this soup we have private and public actors, both exists within their respective regulatory framework and requirements from their owners (or equivalent). A regulative oversight limited by directives and regulations from Brussels and a mindset of the industry that we still live in a time when the monopoly Televerket had employees driving around in orange cars. Just look at discussions and comments on the investigation on how to build robust telecommunications, Communication for our common security (Ds 2017: 7), for example the comments from The Royal Academy of Engineering Sciences or Can we do something about this then? Well, maybe. We have known since the 1990s that it is extremely difficult for regulation and supervision to catch up. That’s probably impossible. The market economy is steaming ahead and it is building fiber networks across the country. Not always in a way that is good for the consumer, not as an enabler of market economy and competition, and not future-proof either. Sometimes in an extremely crappy way. But what can we do? Not much more than focusing on the ultimate goal. Which it would be good if we had one. It would be great if we could try to agree on a good ultimate goal, and then everybody really tries to go in that direction. Maybe not hand in hand all the way, and some will drive in the ditch a few times. To do like the Swedish Competition Authority and draw some cases to court, but not others is confusing, but maybe we must accept that. That some municipalities act in one way, while others do otherwise, and SKL does not say much, maybe we have to accept that too. That some private companies are technically competent while others probably should go to school a bit, we must accept that as well. That some argue that their business model is the only valid one when there are in fact several different ones, we have to accept that too. To me there are only two things that are part of the long-term goal:

  • A robust fiber network in Sweden that everyone has the opportunity to use under non-discriminatory terms - and not only between two points but also last mile to homes.
  • An open Internet access so that any company, organization, and individual. An access that provides the opportunity for competition and innovation for services using this Internet access.

This can of course be implemented in one way or another, and we need to talk about these variants, but I want it to be possible to innovate and come up with various different competing alternatives. Unfortunately, we do not focus on these two important issues. The focus is on building something that is often called broadband, but people do not agree on what it is. If you look around in Sweden, you see a big set of variants. And since we are in a market economy, the number of colorful powerpoint presentations are many. Like all those trying to sell fiber access to property owners by telling you which services to buy? What does services have to do with the fibre access? We do have a requirement that the passive infrastructure being installed must be available to anyone under non-discriminatory terms when subsidies are given to the installation. Or the installations and contracts where part of investments come from third parties without giving any ownership or control in return. But we probably have to accept this. Because the government just now focuses on digitalisation, and has forgotten the Internet, at least now anyway. Unfortunately Internet in Sweden does not work as well as those who work with digitalisation expect. Believe me, robustness is not what it should be, and openness, and … Well well, there’s a lot to do. Once again, that the Government now have a Digitalization Council, which will get an office hosted by the regulator PTS. That is brilliant. Continue, keep demands high and work with business and specifically changes of processes in the society. But, do not forget to demand well-functioning Internet access, which in turn requires access to dark fiber as a wholesale product. Everywhere. Yes, really everywhere.