local and household media ecologies
In this paper we focus on Australia National Broadband Network (NBN) and its reconstitution of media ecologies at three levels: national, local, and within the household.
Engineering a media ecology
The metaphor of ecology was introduced into studies of media and communication by theorists Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman in the 1960s and 1970s, who adapted it from already established ideas of ecology in urban sociology from the Chicago School, rather than directly from biological science (Heise 2002; Strate 2004). The metaphor of ecology shifted the attention on communication media from metaphors associated with conduits for transmission or languages of representation (Meyrowitz 1993), opening a perspective onto the interconnectedness of media technologies configuring and stabilising a cultural environment. Yet, in its metaphorical application, as Pickett and Cadenasso (2002, p. 6) note, the concept of an ecological system be used to stand for equilibrium, resistance or resilience, diversity, and adaptability It is the first of these senses of equilibrium tends to characterise established media ecology approaches. For instance, Neil Postman writes:
We put the word in the front of the word to suggest that we were not simply interested in media, but in the ways in which the interaction between media and human beings gives a culture its character and, one might say, helps a culture to maintain symbolic balance.
(Postman, quoted in Strate 2004, p. 3)1
While we share Postman focus on interaction, and his definition of media ecology as study of media as environments (Postman, quoted in Strate 2004, p. 4), our concern in this article is not so much with media ecologies in states of dynamic equilibrium. Rather, we turn to current efforts in Australia to geographically transform, or the national media infrastructure landscape, and thereby fundamentally reshape its media ecology, through a massive project aimed at encouraging the proliferation and then the domination of high speed broadband as a communications mode. In order to do this we explore the dynam Pandora Bracelet ics of the media ecology in terms of appropriation and resistance, and strategic interposition across three levels: national, local and household. With this in mind, the second generation strands of media ecology scholarship that inform this part of the investigation are David Altheide (1995) work on communicative ecology, and the treatment given by media anthropologist Jo Tacchi (2006). The contributions of each are sketched below.
Altheide draws out four crucial aspects of the term for the study of information and communication technologies (ICTs), which he summarises as follows: first, the word relationships related through process and interaction second, it a spatial and relational basis for a subject matter meaning that characteristics of a medium depend on a certain arrangement of elements third, relations are not haphazard or wholly arbitrary and, fourth, are developmental, contingent, and emergent features of ecology which suggests that does not exist as a thing, but is a fluid structure (Altheide 1995, pp. 10 11). This fourfold understanding of ecology informs his concept of of communication It is a framework that is productive for grasping social activities are joined interactively in a communication environment [. and] with information technology (Altheide 1995, p. 2). The merit of this approa Pandora Bracelet ch for our investigation of the interactions between the NBN and households, and the NBN and the suburb of Brunswick in Victoria, Australia, is that it situates these interactions within domestic environments and within the particular vagaries of local environments, a significant context in that the material and spatial aspects of domestic and local ecologies of communication have a direct influence on strategic interposition of the network (Shepherd, Arnold, Bellamy Gibbs 2007).
The work of media anthropologist Tacchi complements the above approaches and extends them in one crucial respect: by drawing attention to the macro level frames within which domestic and local communication ecologies operate. is a characteristic of anthropological media research she writes, it considers media in wider contexts (Tacchi 2006). Drawing on extensive fieldwork in the area of ICTs for development, Tacchi argues that the communicative ecology framework is useful insofar as it focuses attention not just on more immediate communication related aspects of the contexts in which people operate but also on the ways that they are turn imbricated in other structural, social, economic and cultural contexts (Tacchi 2006).2
The issues Tacchi raises resonate with arguments developed within human geography around the notion of place. According to a relational way of thinking, place is a process that is produced. A place can be understood as a bounded but open and contested site, a complex product of competing discourses, ever shifting social relations, and internal (as well as external) events (Malpas 1999). In other words, any given is upon the interconnectedness of the elements within it it is also dependent on its interconnection with other places (Malpas 1999, p. 39). Place is imagined as moments in networks of social relations and understandings albeit which carry implications far beyond we happen to define for that moment as the place itself (Massey 1994, p. 154). Such a perspective emphasises the importance of thinking place through, and in relation to, what Doreen Massey terms a of connectivity As Massey explains:
A relational politics of place, then, involves both the inevitable negotiations presented by throwntogetherness and a politics of the terms of openness and closure. But a global sense of places evokes another geography of politics too: their construction. It raises the question of a politics of connectivity.
(Massey 2005, p. 181)
While Massey refers to connectivity in a number of different senses here (see Massey 2005, p. 181ff), one of these senses includes networked information and communications technologies, the infrastructure that supports them, and the role that they play in the construction of a relational politics of the home, the suburb and the nation.
This approach has a long and rich history within media and communications scholarship (see Heise  and Strate ), and has also emerged from and been influential in studies of media histories and successive waves of technical innovation adopted into home life, including family television viewing (Spigel 1992), home based computer adoption and use (Lally 2002), media rich culture and multiple screen households (Livingstone 2009), shifts in wireless devices and living, and the of elsewhere through personalised electronic media (Morley 2003). The approach also extends a rich tradition of media homes research, and empirical approaches that trace how the uses and experiences of innovations in technologies within the home are adopted and accommodated into routines and environments (for example, Silverstone Hirsch 1992). We recruited households in Brunswick inner Melbourne suburb in Victoria, Australia, and NBN early release site homes with an NBN connection and those without. There were 2600 homes contained within the Brunswick early release rollout area. Of these, the study initially surveyed 282 households in late 2011, followed by qualitative interviews with a smaller sample of 20 households in mid 2012. To capture something of the dynamics of the ecology through time, a second follow up survey was conducted in late 2012 with a subset of 102 households from the initial survey respondents (for a detailed explanation of the methods see Nansen, Arnold, Wilken Gibbs 2013).
The NBN and the national media ecology
The idea for a national Australian broadband network emerged during the Howard Government era (1996 through the work of the Government Broadband Advisory Group (BAG). In a 2003 report, BAG recommended that the Federal Government assemble industry and state governments to reshape Australia media environment through the construction of a high speed broadband network (Broadband Advisory Group [BAG] 2003). At the time, Australia media environment was, as always, in dynamic flux. By 2005, Australians in their millions were reshaping the ecology from the by appropriating social networking, peer to peer file sharing and other bandwidth intensive applications, with a flow through effect to Telstra, the nation largest telecommunication provider, who announced a plan to meet increasing bandwidth demand by replacing its copper network with a fibre optic network (Maiden 2005). The dominant telco, fibre optic cable, and Web 2.0 users, were thus negotiating the conditions of an intermediated relationship in which the relative position of each within the media environment would be strengthened. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) was prevailed upon to take the view that a Telstra owned fibre network would produce an ecological monoculture in which other media players could not compete, and would survive only on Telstra terms. The ACCC agreed with this view and as a consequence the plan was never enacted.
Telstra withdrawal left a national broadband network vacuum, and, in 2009, after much negotiation, the Federal Labor Government (2007 announced their intention to terraform the national media environment, thereby dramatically disrupting media ecologies at all levels (domestic, local, and national), and in all places. The Federal Government would use the power of the State (financial capacity, legislative power, national reach, and electoral legitimacy) to build a wholesale, open access national broadband network to deliver high speed broadband to all homes and businesses in Australia (Conroy 2009). The government decided to fund the construction of a fibre to the premises (FttP) network that would deliver speeds of 100 Mbps downstream and 40 Mbps upstream (with the capacity to be upgraded to 1 Gbps/400 Mbps) to 93% of the population at a total projected cost of AU$44.1 billion (NBN Co Limited 2012). This plan was the largest engineering and public infrastructure project in Australia history, laying 200,000km of fibre optic cable to the doors of 93% of Australian premises. For the remaining 7% of Australians who live in remote rural areas, or in towns of fewer than 1000 households, wireless and satellite connections would deliver speeds of at least 25/12 Mbps (NBN Co Limited 2013). Together, these technologies would provide a common platform of universal and ubiquitous broadband across the whole of the Australian media environment, with significant implications for the media ecologies of households, schools, medical practices, government agencies, industries, and all other denizens of the digital environment.
Here is a classic case of confidence in the power of materiality. If, as Latour (1991) says, is society made durable the Federal government intention was to use the agency of fibre optic cable to make a particular kind of society, a socioeconomic and cultural environment, shaped by its new media ecology. This new society and its defining media ecology is at best only roughly sketched out, but is well enough known as the based society the society the society the economy and so forth.
The NBN Co, a government owned company set up by the Federal Government in 2009, was thereby delegated the task of installing and operating the network as a wholesale monopoly, selling a tiered range of broadband products to retail service providers, who in turn would offer products to consumers (NBN Co Limited 2010a). The Australian Government negotiated an AU$11 billion deal with Telstra, itself once a government owned telecommunications monopoly, to decommission the company extensive but ageing copper network. NBN Co would utilise its conduits for fibre, and Telstra would separate its retail and wholesale arms to allow it to transfer customers to the new NBN. This assemblage of a limited number of powerful elements, each with a clear relation to the others, was figured to provide the best chance of a successful interposition o Pandora Bracelet n a national scale. Once the interposition of fibre was completed (estimated to be June 2021), things could be permitted to get messy. The Government would sell its stake in NBN Co and privatise the company. The monopoly would have served its purpose as a national terraforma, and fluidity of elements and interrelations in the new environment Pandora Bracelet would be encouraged, eventually stabilising in a new ecological equilibrium.
As described above, and as others have noted (see Dias 2012), this plan for a national broadband network differed from the approach taken to infrastructure investment in many developed economies around the world. Australia national media ecology was to be actively and radically disrupted by the State, ready and willing to act to introduce and interconnect new and powerful elements, to realign relationships, and to create a state of dynamic fluidity, albeit without a clearly defined stable end point. This environmental and subsequent ecological transformation was almost entirely funded through public finances, and its reach was maximised in the provision of material elements (fibre, satellite, or wireless) as common goods, not differentially according to capacity to pay, but as a communications infrastructure, available at standard wholesale costs and guaranteed minimum performance rates to every household in every street in every town. In making this decision the Labor Government was leveraging the effect whereby the value of the network increases as the number of users increases. Anticipated productivity gains associated with the broadband capacity and data transfer speeds of the NBN clearly rely upon delivery and take up by manufacturing and service industries, by people and organisations in rural and remote areas, and by public institutions such as hospitals and schools.
In April 2013, the then opposition party in Australia, the Liberal/National Coalition, announced their alternative policy to the Federal Labor Government plan to deliver FttP to most of the population by 2021. The Coalition plan Affordable. Sooner. aimed to transform the environment by interposing a national broadband network similar in some respects to the Federal Labor Government Key differences in the Coalition policy included providing a mainly fibre to the node (FttN) network rather than an FttP network, with the last mile of the network utilising the existing copper network; and a projected completion date of 2019, sooner than the NBN previous projected completion date of June 2021. The Coalition arrangement was also projected to cost less, at AUD$29.5 billion, although long term costs of FttN have been argued to exceed the cost of FttP (Tucker 2013). The then Federal Opposition thus proposed to interpose an arrangement of elements (legislation, money, fibre, nodes, copper, users) that was different to the Labor Government elements (legislation, money, fibre, users), with a concomitant change in environmental and thus ecological impact. The Coalition was elected to govern in the 2013 federal election, and, at the time of writing this article, specific plans to proceed with the amended broadband policy were emerging. It is claimed this arrangement of elements will deliver speeds of between 25 and 100 Mbps for all users of the network by the end of 2016; and speeds of 50 to 100 Mbps for the 90% of homes connected to the mainly FttN network by 2019 (Liberal Party of Australia 2013).
An implication of the interposition of the new Government elements is that the environment will, for the short term at least, be patchier or more diverse than would be the case as a consequence of the Labor Party plan. Under the new Government arrangements the FttP component of the NBN will be scaled back to the 22% of premises in areas already being serviced by NBN Co, to new housing premises, and to areas where the copper is too degraded to deliver 25Mbps speeds. Therefore, 71% of homes and business will be connected to FttN by upgrading the already existing copper network, while the fixed wireless and satellite components of the NBN for the last 7% of premises will remain the same as in the previous policy. In addition, homes on the FttN network that can already access speeds of at least 25Mbps on the Coalition planned network will be able to upgrade to a complete fibre connection (or FttP) if they are willing to pay for the cost themselves (Liberal Party of Australia 2013). A patchy media environment that varies materially from house to house, from suburb to suburb, from city to country, will no doubt give rise to differentiated media ecologies, some of which will be richer, more productive and more robust than others.
In this period of broadband policy transition, much is uncertain about just what new elements will be introduced and what interactions and relations will be encouraged or discouraged. Also rendered uncertain (and necessarily so), are the specific goals of this massive media ecology intervention.
Quite understandably, the NBN projected impact on public and private services, economic productivity and social life in Australia remains unclear in the public mind and is still subject to debate (Burns McGrail 2012; Dias 2012). While there has been much rhetoric using the sweeping terms of transformation of the economic and social landscape of Australia at the scale, less attention has been paid to its impact on the level, in relation to the individuals and families who will appropriate and assemble their own arrangements of interacting media elements in their own domestic media ecologies.