Friday, February 18, 2011

Not Everyone Lives in Oslo

Oslo by night. This work is licensed under under a Creative Commons License.
Once upon a time there was a spoiled little kid that received everything he pointed at, and more. The other kids, his brothers and sisters, were not so lucky, and they only became more and more disappointed. Why didn’t they get what their spoiled brother did? Or at least some of it? After a while the disappointment turned into silence. They could not be bothered to react anymore, they just realized that they were being treated differently.

Was this from a fairytale by H.C. Andersen? I certainly hope not. He wrote much better children stories than I ever will.

Too many options?
So what is the point of this little story? It is an attempt to describe what governments, network operators and broadcasters may be doing wrong too often in order to increase uptake and encourage constructive dialogue with users. They usually start building new services or networks in the big cities. The issue with big cities is that people there already have ‘everything’. They have amusement parks, theatres, cinemas, restaurants, ice skating rinks, cafes, pubs, and concert halls. And access to all kinds of media. Even digital radio (DAB) and MiniTV (DMB) too.

The two latter services are services that make the ‘other kids,’ in this case rural towns and villages, go silent. Yet again, the cities have received beneficial treatment. 80% of Norwegians are covered by DAB signals, around 20% by DMB.

What would have happened if the other kids got something that the spoiled one didn’t? Well, then he would probably have wanted it (based on my knowledge of spoiled kids). And what would have happened if DAB and DMB had been introduced in the countryside first? First of all, I believe that rural populations are more open for such new services as they are not at all spoiled when it come to what is on offer. They might even be grateful for being given such opportunities. After all, 10% of Norwegians can receive only one or two radio stations. And they do certainly not have amusement parks or cinemas. 

Cities last?
By first introducing DAB and DMB outside the cities the uptake would have been likely to be much higher (percentage wise) than what is currently the case. And feedback from those users would probably have been more productive and positive. Spoiled kids usually don’t even say thanks, let alone explain why they are not satisfied. But they do complain easily. (- Why do I need this? I like the other one better. This is not what I wished for.)   

Why were the DAB and DMB networks built in the cities first? If you look at the cost calculations, it makes sense. Every transmitter in urban areas will cover many more people than what is the case in rural Norway. But maybe this is not the most important factor initially. Maybe the goal should be to properly introduce a new service in a population that has time to appreciate it. Because they are not spoiled with choice or because they don’t even have an option. Only the population in the 13 biggest cities have access to 5 radio channels from NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporations) via FM. The rest only have access to 3, 2 or 1 NRK channels. Less than 83% of Norwegian households have access to broadband at home. And do remember, the Internet Won’t Solve Everything, even if everyone has broadband.

Those living in rural areas have a much less varied choice when it comes to media alternatives than their counterparts in cities. Competition is limited, if at all present, and helping increase choice through new distribution technologies should be prioritized. This is now luckily being done in some countries. In Norway thanks to a government that has decided to give digital radio to everyone, increasing choice of radio stations thirteenfold to those living in the smallest villages.

A rural world
This blog post has not been written to blame broadcasters, governments or network operators in Norway or elsewhere for what has been done. DAB and DMB networks have been built with the best of intentions, namely to reach out to as many people as possible, often with limited budgets or in order to introduce a commercial service that needs as many users as possible to attract advertisers. And DAB and DMB services are certainly picking up speed and attracting fans in more and more countries. So is the access of advanced and attractive terminals. I just think that there may be a lesson there somewhere. For next time.

Because there are people outside Oslo too.

In fact, 57% of Egyptians, 27% of Russians, 23% of Norwegians, 18% of Americans, 13% of Danes and 10% of British live in rural areas. 

But who lives in Oslo and other cities? Well, almost all journalists writing about trends, media and technology and most analysts commenting and presenting on these issues do. That is quite natural, after all most media houses, analysts and creative agencies are based in cities. But that is still a problem, because they do not, or at least only rarely, get to experience the situation of people that live on the countryside. With poor, if any broadband connection, limited access to TV channels and radio stations. That is reflected in a fair amount of the articles that they write.

It is actually a good reality check to go rural for a while. I am from Naustdal, a small village on the Norwegian West Coast, and I do therefore get to experience the different media world every time I am at home. It's a good thing that the area compensates with a stunning scenery, fish in fjords and rivers, berries in the forests and unbelieveable hiking possibilities.  

P.S. My apologies to any spoiled kids out there, former or present, that may feel intimidated by the usage of ‘spoiled kid’ as a term. And I do not suggest that the inhabitants of cities are spoiled, we just have a much better choice of services than people living on the countryside.