A provisional definition for the Cultural Last Mile

In the first of his entries, Ashish Rajadhyaksha gives his own spin on the 'Last Mile' problem that has been at the crux of all public technologies. Shifting the terms of debate away from broadcast problems of distance and access, he re-purposes the 'last mile' which is a communications problem, to make a cultural argument about the role and imagination of technology in India, and the specific ways in which this problem features in talking about Internet Technologies in contemporary India.

In its classical form, the ‘last mile’ is a communications term defining the final stage of providing connectivity from a communications provider to a customer, and has been used as such most commonly by telecommunications and cable television industries. There has however been a a specific Indian variant, seen in its most classical avatar in scientist Vikram Sarabhai’s contention that overcoming the last mile could solve the two major challenges India has faced, of linguistic diversity and geographical distance, and mounted as the primary argument for terrestrial television in the early 1980s. (I will try and attach the Sarabhai paper a little later to this posting).

This specifically Indian variation, where technology was mapped onto developmentalist-democratic priorities, has been the dominant characteristic of communications technology since at least the invention of the radio in the 1940s. For at least 50 years now, that means, the last mile has become a mode of a techno-democracy, where connectivity has been directly translated into democratic citizenship. It has continuously provided the major rationale for successive technological developments, from the 1960s wave of portable transistors, the terrestrial transponders of the first televisual revolution it the early 1980s (the Special Plan for the Expansion of Television), the capacity of satellite since SITE and the INSAT series, and from the 1990s the arrival of wired networks (LANs, Cable, fibre-optic) followed by wireless (WLAN, WiMAX, W-CDMA). At each point the assumption has been consistently made that the final frontier was just around the corner; that the next technology in the chain would breach a major barrier, once and for all.

What I hope to do is to provide a historical account to argue that the theory of the ‘last mile’ has been founded on fundamental (mis)apprehensions around just what this bridge constitutes. Further, that these apprehensions may have been derived from a misconstruction of democractic theory, to assume, first, an evolutionary rather than distributive model for connectivity, and second, to introduce a major bias for broadcast (or one-to-many) modes as against many-to-many peer-to-peer formats. The book, whenever I succeed in writing it, will hope to argue the following:

1. It has been difficult to include human resource as an integral component to the last mile. Contrary to the relentlessly technologized definition of the last mile, it may perhaps be best seen historically as also, and even perhaps primarily, a human resource issue. This is not a new realization, but it is one that keeps reproducing itself with every new technological generation[1], with ever newer difficulties. The endemic assumption, derived from the broadcasting origins of the definition is that it is primarily the sender’s responsibility to bridge the divide, that technology can aid him to do so on its own, and that such technology can negate the need to define connectivity as a multiple-way partnership as it reduces the recipient into no more than an intelligent recipient of what is sent (the citizen model). On the other hand, it is possible to show how previous successful experiments bridging the last mile have been ones where recipients have been successfully integrated into the communications model both as peers and, even more significantly, as originators as well as enhancers of data. Importantly, this paper will show, this has been evidenced even in one-way ‘broadcast’ modes such as film, television and radio (in the movie fan, community radio and the television citizen-journalist).

2. The one-way broadcast versus peer-to-peer versus two/multiple-way debate needs to he historically revisited. The need to redefine the beneficiary of a connectivity cycle as a full-fledged partner tends to come up against a bias written into standard communications models – and therefore several standard revenue models – that consistently tend to underplay what this paper will call the significant sender/recipient. While both terrestrial and satellite systems require some level of peer-to-peer transmission systems to facilitate last-mile communications, it has been a common problem that unless either a clear focus exists on geographic areas or significant peer-to-peer participation exists, broadcast models inevitably find themselves delivering large amounts of S/N at low frequencies without sufficient spectrum to support large information capacity. While it is technically possible to ‘flood’ a region in broadcasting terms, this inevitably leads to extremely high wastage as much of the radiated ICE never reaches any user at all. As information requirements increase, broadcast ‘wireless mesh’ systems small enough to provide adequate information distribution to and from a relatively small number of local users, require a prohibitively large number of broadcast locations along with a large amount of excess capacity to make up for the wasted energy.

This problem, importantly, springs as much from a built-in ideological commitment to one-way broadcasting formats, as from technological limitations. The technology itself poses further problems given the bias of different systems to different kinds of connectivity, and with it different types of peer-to-peer possibilities. Rather than attempting a one-size-fits-all model for all models to follow, we need to work out different synergies between broadcast-dependent and peer-to-peer-enabled platforms.

This book will eventually hope to study the history of peer-to-peer and multiple-way structures as systems where sending has become a component part of receiving. Key technological precedents to the present definition of the sender-communication ‘partner’ would be community radio, low-power transmission-reception systems (most famously the Pij experiment in Gujarat conducted by ISRO), and various internet-based networking models.

3. The need to revisit the technological community is therefore critical. The key question is one of how technological communities have been produced, and how they may be sustained. In January 2007, the attack by V.S. Ailawadi, former Chairman, Haryana Electricty Regulatory Commission, on India’s public sector telecom giants BSNL and MTNL for keeping their ‘huge infrastructure’ of ‘copper wire and optic fibre’ to themselves, when these could be used by private operators as cheaper alternatives to WiMAX, W-CDMA and broadband over power lines, shows the uneasy relationship between new players and state agencies. Mr. Ailawadi’s contention that the ‘unbundling’ of the last mile would bring in competition for various types of wireless applications and broadband services not just for 45 million landlines but also for 135 million mobile users of various service providers, also therefore needs to be revisited from the perspective of community formation. How would the new 135 million mobile users be effectively tapped for their capacity to become what we are calling significant senders?

In defining the last mile as to do with the recipient-as-sender, and thus the community, this paper will focus on a history of community action along specific models of connectivity. These are: cinema’s movie fan, internet’s blogger and networker, solar energy’s barefoot engineer, software’s media pusher and television’s citizen-journalist. A specific focus for study will be the models of participatory learning in the classroom, using film, the vinyl disc, the audio cassette, the radio, the television, the web and now the mobile phone.

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Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.