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1996 Summer Conference
 
Summer Conference 1996
Citizens of the Electronic Village: smartening up or dumbing down?

Prometheus Unbound Again: More Questions than Answers

PHIL LIND
Vice-Chairman, Rogers Communications

I came prepared to talk of convergence, competition, digital video compression, wireless explosion, direct-to-home satellite, V chips and a few other areas.

But if you don't mind I think we should just hone in on one of them at the outset and that is high speed access to the Internet.

It's almost trite to talk of the changes that we are seeing in electronic communications technologies; changes so radical, so profound that people are equating them to those encountered upon the invention of the motor car or television set.

Certainly scanning two of the barometers on which I rely the most, namely the investor community and the teenage community, could lead one to that conclusion.

For example, teenagers now seem willing to forsake even their beloved tool the television set and, indeed, many of their social activities, in order to spend more quality time on the Net. That says a lot about future markets.

And in the financial community unparalleled amounts of money are being committed on a basis that defies all the traditional rules of investing and vast fortunes are being made in ventures in the electronic software world.

Even a company with such impeccable high-tech credentials as Microsoft has had to shift its course radically in mid-stream as it struggled — and I mean struggled — to keep its hand on the new technological advances.

A recent article in the New York Times says: "This technological course represents a sea change for Microsoft as it strives to blend desktop computing into global networking, portending a future whereby PC users would detect little difference between information stored inside their own little computers, as compared to being housed in a Web computer a whole hemisphere away."

Indeed, it seems astonishing that this brilliant pioneering company is no longer the leader in the parade of technology. Rather, it has become a follower.

And surely one of the most fascinating features surrounding the development of the Internet is that no aspects of what has become a massive revolution were either planned or anticipated by anyone.

Certainly those who constructed the World Wide Web had absolutely no idea as to what it would become. And so, while government planners laboured to develop their much-vaunted and now mostly-discredited national industrial strategies — in Canada you'll recall it was Teledon that was going to do everything for us. The Internet revolution occurred right under their noses, unnoticed and entirely unappreciated.

Indeed, it is pure market forces — this time in lock step with brilliant and opportunistic new technologies — that are fuelling this phenomenon. And so, what does all of this mean?

Maybe it's a tough one for the relentless interventionists, but for companies such as ourselves and Shaw and others who are prepared to spend the vast sums required to make our cable systems two-way and interactive, it means the prospect of obtaining a huge new customer base with a product that seems well ahead of the competition and one that, at least for the early adopter market category, requires almost that people simply be informed that the service exists [because] so great is the demand.

Indeed, as we market test the Rogers Wave, as we are calling our cable modem pathway to high speed Internet access, we are seeing initial tape rates far higher than those for cable or cellular at a similar stage of development.

Whether this can sustain itself is anyone's guess, but we

are prepared to bet a lot of our investors' money on it.

So, putting aside the business aspects of the Internet, because after all we are at Couchiching, we should focus on the enormous social consequences of all of this.

What we are seeing is a powerful new democratization process; a massive breaking down of access barriers. The ease of entry onto the Internet allows almost anyone to express or hear an opinion in a world-wide community.

And there are at this moment basically no controls, no restrictions, no regulations. Indeed, [it seems] a communications system designed perhaps by, or at least for, anarchists. Certainly one that can bypass most, if not all, regulators and content cops. Now that sounds a little destabilizing and maybe it is.

But on the Internet opportunities abound.

For educators, a chance to level the playing field of opportunity, whereby a student located anywhere and in any economic strata can have the same access to high quality and previously completely unavailable educational material throughout the world.

For business people, particularly in the small business sector, it means the opportunity to access financial or demographic information. Again, heretofore unavailable, except to the largest and best endowed companies.