The concepts of infrastructure and universal access are applied to very different realities. We talk, for instance, about the road infrastructure, telecommunications infrastructure, universal access to knowledge, medicine, information, communication technology, and so on. This shows how important the terms are, but it is also a source of ambiguity.

Likewise, the terms convey different ideologies including, among others, the impossibility of developing a society without infrastructure or universal access, the universal service project and the ideal of a society that distributes to all the efforts of all. Current literature on the “information society” thus portrays communication infrastructure as the basis, or prerequisite sine qua non of universal access to knowledge, which, in turn, is taken to be the main justification or better, final objective of the process of installing infrastructure. Even though the concept of universal access conceals the economic interests of those implementing content, it does seem to crystallize for the moment the social hope and ethics of sharing of the consequences of the digital revolution.
The end result is an expression that reflects the relationship between the two terms, namely “universal access infrastructure”. Its major challenge lies in putting it into place and distributing it throughout a territory, that might be global, in conditions accessible to all. It involves the concept of interoperability which refers to the intercommunicability of identical or different systems.

The terms “infrastructure” and “universal access”, and the relationship between them, remain then polysemic and ideological. To explain their implications and current significance, we shall use a historical approach to describe the contexts that give them a particular meaning or importance, remaining within the field of the information and communication technologies (ICTs).

The long advance of the concept of infrastructure

The concept took on overwhelming importance with the epistemological break in the natural sciences in the seventeenth century in the West when stress was henceforth laid on laboratory experiments, essentially experimental inductive methods and the material conditions of knowledge [1]. The slogans of the time, such as “to know is to make”, “the world is unknown, and to be known”, then reinforced the ideas of logistics, equipment, visibility and palpability which underpin by definition the notion of infrastructure.

The ideological apotheosis of the term “infrastructure” coincided with the advent of Marxist thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Infrastructure included and signified all the forces of production (means of production, labour force and the physical and intellectual capacity of workers) and relations of production (forms of ownership, organization of social classes, system of income distribution). It was contrasted with the superstructure of which it was the basis and which referred to the different forms of social awareness (ideology, religion, philosophy) and the political and legal apparatus (administration, political structure). Infrastructure was no longer confined to logistics, politics made it a priority, those who were involved in it enjoyed positive social status, in short, it reflected the vivacity and degree of organization of society.

The growth of telecommunications in the early twentieth century meant that the concept of infrastructure could be applied to all telecommunications networks, data and equipment. The expression “telecommunications infrastructure” then covered everything that physically enabled the analogue transmission of information. This meaning would last until telematics came along towards the end of the 1960s. It added force to the distinction between the heavy and light infrastructure of communication.

The digital revolution, marked by a two-letter alphabet (0 and 1) that is supposed to express everything by a machine that “gets things done” in the place of men and women, has been developing rapidly since the end of the first half of the twentieth century. It has opened up a new field of application for the concept of infrastructure, which, having become “information infrastructure”, at first reduced its semantic field to refer only to computer architecture. Subsequently, it became more dense to express all computer hardware, software and interface standards. The novelty of the expression is that it associates with the “concrete” idea of hardware the “abstract” idea of software and its process of modelling. Material goods and intangible goods now became part of the infrastructure.

The arrival of the Internet further inflated the semantics of the infrastructure by extending it to the structure, together with packet communication, exchange protocols, web interface (introduced as of 1992) and communication standards (http, html, XML). As a result, computer network equipment became weighed down with classical telecommunications architecture. New concepts emerged: “telematics infrastructure”, “information system infrastructure”, and so on. This is the meaning of infrastructure that for a long time underpinned international reports on global Internet access which dealt with network growth rates and the number of servers, local POPs, access points, physical connections, cybercafés, computers per inhabitant, the software market, and so on. However, the importance given both to the content of the network or information, and to the means of production or functioning of infrastructures provided justification for a new concept, that of “infostructure”, which straddles the Marxist notions of infrastructure and superstructure and refers to the non-physical arrangements of the infrastructure (intangible, standards, regulations, etc.).

The context of the globalization of economic trade or better the expansion of the markets for information products, enabled the consolidation of the ideology of spreading the telematics infrastructure to reach every corner of the world. International political discourse in the late twentieth century concerning NICTs, ¬probably influenced the American statements made in 1992 by Al Gore, when he was Vice-President of the United States, used the concept “global communications infrastructure” (GCI). In a context of American political determination to promote a society based on the “information superhighways” whose technology and trade the United States dominated at that time, the concept referred to all telematics hardware and software that might democratize both the content moving on the world computer network and universal telecommunications services. This is infrastructure based on digitization technology and on convergence, that is the continual integration of telecommunications, computer technology and multimedia. It is applicable, among other things, to education, health, the economy, research, in short to all the sectors in the life of States.

Access, content and services now formed part of the new concept of infrastructure, around which lobby groups have set themselves up, some in a strategy of economic hegemony, others to attract international assistance towards priority areas of solidarity. This is the context in which the Global Information Infrastructure Commission (GIIC) was created, which put in place, without any notable results, the Global Information Infrastructure Commission-Africa, with a view to backing the African private sector working in the field of the knowledge and information industries. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) followed the trend by providing for a priority component to finance information and communication infrastructures. The Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund) also decided that the time was right to announce investment in private businesses, in vast programmes to spread communication infrastructure with mitigated results to date.

It was against the backdrop of IGC and GIIC that another notion emerged that could be applied to States, namely, the “national information and communication infrastructure” (NICI), which means here all the equipment that forms part of the public policies of States as regards ICTs. In practice, according to this meaning, African States had not played a specific role in putting into place “pre-Internet” infrastructure before 1990, and when they invested in Internet connectivity, using their monopolies in the telecommunications sector, they were soon to find themselves left behind, due on the one hand to the liberalization initiatives of international bodies (World Bank, IMF, businesses from the North) and on the other, the “proliferation of unchecked and transnational activities” [2].

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) expanded the notion of NICI to cover “regulation, a favourable environment, (...) procedures that could lead to activities linked to NICIs (and to) development of human resources” [3]. This is getting closer to the Marxist conception of infrastructure and the notion of infostructure.

Current needs and problems, questions and challenges to come

We can draw five major conclusions from these meanings of infrastructure:

1. Infrastructure is the set of material, software and regulatory responses to the challenges of communicating of a given society. It is felt to be a “need” and is expressed as a “problem” according not only to the targets and aims to be reached at a given time, but also an individual’s or group’s mode of understanding or variable habits of communicating. These factors (aims, targets, habits, etc.) go a long way to explaining conflicts in the interpretation of infrastructure needs that often arise on the selection of the equipment to be installed in developing countries. Have these countries ever had the choice of technology and interoperability standards in the context of development aid? Even if they did have this choice, do they have the necessary skills and sufficient means to develop the internal logic of the infrastructure?

2. Infrastructure is also a problem to be resolved. This means updating it and installing it everywhere that it must play its part. This is the dual challenge that States and businesses generally express in their priority policies on infrastructure. For example, in 2003, the priorities of the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concerned the national introduction of broadband, the installation of structures guaranteeing electronic settlement/payment and the “standardization” of digital material [4]. In Africa, they were more to do with increasing bandwidth, the connection of secondary towns, the interconnection of different mobile telephone networks, and WIFI equipment for a wireless Internet. These solutions were supported upstream by media projects for satellite constellation initiated under the concept of the Regional African Satellite Communications Organization (RASCOM) and the project of connectivity by underwater cable that Africa ONE struggled to implement. The question that often arises is that of knowing whether the infrastructure proposed or spread to the South should be adapted or should break through the context of poverty and skills shortages.

3. The need and importance of the infrastructure is relative, due to its high cost or fall in profitability. Many businesses thus prefer to develop and specialize in services that are supposed to offer constant work rather than to continue the production of equipment, which is considered to be very limiting in commercial terms. It is easy then to understand why countries of the South are advised to turn to the development of services. It may be a strategic choice, but does it guarantee developing countries a minimum of technological and commercial independence?

4. Technological diversity (range of technology) and its diversification (access by cable and by satellite) add to the complexity and constant progress of the infrastructure, which raises the problem of having constantly available national skills which the outside promoters of equipment also need. The optimal installation of infrastructure thus depends on the development of skills and requires the training of human resources.

5. Serious investment is expected for the research and installation of heavy infrastructure, which means that “broke” developing countries rush not only into complex alliances with different donors and various enterprises of the North, but also into generally very lengthy regional negotiations on the status or legal form of the firms asked to manage regional infrastructure projects. These have become the occasion for the States of the South to go into debt again and to depend systematically on the American, European and Asian (Japan, China) holders of technological solutions and capital. Are there alternatives to this often unprofitable dependency? How much room to manœuvre do States have in defining the roles of those with solutions in national development? How can earlier and future investment be protected in the face of the rapid advances in infrastructure? Should the strategy of “revolution”, which means changing all the old equipment be adopted, or that of “evolution”, which adapts the technological solutions of the past to recent innovations? The WSIS working group on infrastructure finance tried to look into these challenges and its report seems to raise more questions than it answers [5].

Universal access: the new frontier

Universal access is understood to be the possibility for every citizen of the world, regardless of their digital skills, geographical and socio-economic situation, to create and/or use for themselves or through telematics networks already installed in their environment, and to find and place on the Internet, information useful for their life plans.

The concept of universal access thus presupposes the proximity and availability of digital networks and their interoperability, universal service (broadband, for instance), the use and accessibility for all of technology and information, the capacity to interpret data, and participation in the renewal of the system and web content. This means that States have to take various initiatives in favour of the training of citizens, adapted equipment, economic accessibility, and so on.

Inasmuch as it means involving and helping everybody benefit from the opportunities provided by NICTs, universal access means taking into account regional, physical and social specificities (linguistic, cultural and social diversity) in the industrial process of infrastructure production. This is the meaning of the discourse developed by the European Commission in the 1990s, mainly the White Paper on growth, competitiveness and employment presented in 1993 by Jacques Delors, its then President [6]. The Agence intergouvernementale de la Francophonie endorsed this same approach by insisting on the production and promotion of software in French [7].

The notion of universal access is thus presented as a response to an unequal mode of access, use and participation in the elaboration of information products. This is the whole socio-political challenge of this concept in the context of ICTs. We know now, for example, that in the 1990s, projects to disseminate the new technologies to the South served and reflected the particular aims of donors. Access was restrictive and reserved to privileged users, prices were excessive, access points scarce, a few languages, with English way ahead, were dominant, there were few interfaces for social categories (the visually impaired), the nature of computer systems was obsolete, and so on.

It has then been necessary to debate at the international level [8] the social implications of ICTs in the world in order to see synergies emerge around the concept of universal access. There were the G8 meetings in Okinawa, regional conferences on digital integration, and the establishment of global institutions (the now-defunct Dot Force of the G8, UN-ICT TASK FORCE, GKN, etc.) charged with enlightening the international community and proposing answers at the global level to what is known as the “digital divide”. The different phases of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), preceded by regional preparatory conferences, then reached a consensus on universal access. The idea of a global communication infrastructure to democratize access to ICTs became clearer and more solid. ITU was thus able to redefine, in 1998, its understanding of what universal access means, which includes not only the notion of a flexible infrastructure capable of meeting the needs of all users, but also the potential of arrangements for collective access (telecentres) and community access centres [9]. At the same time, the guidelines for building websites now include the need for universal legibility. This is the meaning adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) which in 1999 proposed the idea of unilateral accessibility for all the resources of the web [10]. The open-source software movement can in turn demand the opening-up of source codes so that everybody can take part in software innovation by removing legal, economic and technological constraints.

Universal access, however, is no panacea. It remains to be seen whether what we have access to helps to improve living conditions and relations between people, which is by no means obvious, because the world web is also the scene of opposites and relations of force, and access infrastructure, such as broadband, is subject to bitter negotiations of interests before it can be implemented.

Access infrastructure

This concept refers to the inextricable relations between infrastructure and universal access. It certainly reflects their complementary nature. In fact, projects to install infrastructure bring along, above all, economic interests that sometimes counter universal access in a competitive regime among suppliers. Nevertheless, the project of the scientific and technical improvement and social dissemination of infrastructure refers to the absolute need for universal access, which, moreover, guarantees the expansion of the market for communication products.

There are still many challenges to be met: development of civic capacities for sorting given the volume of information on the telematics network and the range of access technologies; adaptability to the rapid evolution of infrastructure; accessibility for persons with disabilities; awakening the digital competence and basic knowledge needed for participation in today’s information society; budgeting for expenditure on the infrastructure; etc.

It has emerged from this analysis that the concept of universal access quite simply refers to the democratization of access to and use of ICTs. The notion of infrastructure relates to the technological, regulatory and organizational matrix of that democratization. The relationship between the two concepts is an expression of the relations of mutual recycling and causality between them, on condition that we are in an environment where the access of the greatest number is a leitmotiv for the businesses that create information products, and where infrastructure obeys the principles of interoperability, international standardization ad compatibility.

Finally, words matter in formulating social policies that can the putting into place of communication infrastructure and universal access to the digital network, its content, management and production.

13 March 2006

couverture du livre enjeux de mots This text is an extract from the book Word Matters: multicultural perspectives on information societies. This book, which has been coordinated by Alain Ambrosi, Valérie Peugeot and Daniel Pimienta was released on November 5, 2005 by C & F Éditions.

The text is under the Creative Commons licence, by, non commercial.

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