Science

Snail mail in the hamlet

Digital jungle

Nearly half a million Dutch people have such a poor internet connection that it is practically useless. That is a bad thing, says cultural geographer Koen Salemink. ‘An internet connection is no longer a luxury. It’s become a vital necessity.’
By Thereza Langeler / Photo by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steeneren

According to PhD candidate Koen Salemink, the world is becoming digitised at such a fast pace that the internet is no longer just a luxury, but a vital necessity.How this is possible?

Telecommunications companies make no money installing cable in sparsely populated outlying areas, so they do nothing.

Digital exclusion is a serious problem. But it is hardly on anyone’s political agenda, which is primarily focused on urban life.

One-third of Dutch companies are located in outlying areas. Secondary school pupils and university students cannot make use of electronic learning environments.

For his PhD, Salemink studied 145 broadband initiatives who are trying to install their own broadband cable. Sometimes, that works out, but just as often, it fails.

Salemink posits that large cable companies do not like these kinds of initiatives at all. They sometimes play ‘dirty’ games to stop them.

Reading time: 8 minutes (1,206 words)

Perhaps you take the take the train sometimes, from Groningen to, say, Amersfoort. On the way, you kill time on Facebook, WhatsApp, or YouTube. But somewhere between Hoogeveen and Zwolle, all your videos freeze and messages no longer come through: you have lost your internet connection. You feel irritated for a bit, but then you shrug. After all, you will be in Amersfoort in less than an hour.

But for almost half a million people, it feels as though they are permanently stuck in the train between Hoogeveen and Zwolle. They live outside the developed world of cities and villages, in the outlying areas. There, internet is run through old-fashioned ADSL cables, and it is really, really slow.

Koen Salemink (1987) studied these areas. Salemink works as a social geographer at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences at the RUG and got his PhD in digital exclusion: not being able to keep up in the increasingly digital world, i.e. if you live in an outlying area and you are forced to depend on a phone line from the ‘90s.

Volunteers

Salemink’s research is mainly focused on broadband initiatives, which popped up in several places in those outlying areas. Through these initiatives, civilian volunteers are trying to get cable to their residences. This is because companies such as Ziggo and KPN, who provide the rest of the Netherlands with broadband, do not serve those outlying areas, nor does the government.

Salemink explains: ‘In Europe, internet access is dependent on the market. That means that state support is not allowed, except in areas where the market fails. And it’s not profitable for market players to install cable in these outlying areas: it’s so expensive, and these areas are so sparsely populated that they will lose money on it.’

That means the commercial cable companies do not help out approximately 200,000 households. And so the Netherlands claim to be one of the world’s pioneers when it comes to internet, despite the fact that parts of this same country are ‘a digital jungle’, according to Salemink.

The ADSL connection which the outlying areas depend on has a download speed of eight megabits per second (mbps). In comparison: according to the European broadband norms, the minimum speed should be at least 30 mbps. Many Dutch telecom providers offer speeds many times that.

Salemink: ‘That speed of eight mbps is only reached by people who live really close to the ADSL box. That means you can watch a YouTube video, and Skype should work in theory. But the moment someone else in the house gets online, everything starts to malfunction.’

Broadband Situation in the Netherlands

But it gets really bad for the people who live farther away from the ADSL box. ‘The greater the distance, the worse it gets. There are people who can barely do anything. Websites won’t load. If they have to upload something for school or work, it times out: sorry, it took too long, we kicked you out.’

Arrogant

Talking to Salemink, you can tell that he cares a lot. He is especially bothered by the average urbanite’s attitude of smiling arrogantly at the concept of ‘digital exclusion’. Because surely those country people made their own choice to live all the way out in the middle of nowhere? Can they not just accept that their YouTube video takes longer to load?

No, they cannot, he says. ‘Internet is often seen as a luxury’, says Salemink. ‘But everything is becoming digitised at such an increasing pace – government, banks, education – that it’s become a vital necessity.’

Consequences

So that means the consequences of slow internet are a bit more serious than waiting for your YouTube video to load. Salemink summarises: ‘Companies suffer from it too: nearly one-third of Dutch companies is located in these outlying areas. Students can’t use electronic learning environments. Tourism declines, because who wants to spend time at a camp site nowadays when the Wi-Fi barely works? People enjoy living in these places less, and the houses lose their value.’

Digital exclusion is a difficult problem to get on the political agenda because it is not an urban problem. ‘Dutch policy is mainly aimed at young, educated urban dwellers. That makes sense, because they make for nice positive stories for the government.’ He sneers: ‘Look at us. The Netherlands as a start-up country. The city is the norm, everything has to be fast and up-to-date. And the people outside the cities are left behind.’

Left behind

Salemink has always been fascinated by the people who get left behind. ‘I’m interested in everything that’s out there and doesn’t quite belong. I like to find out more about why those people and places don’t belong.’ The fact that he grew up in a small village in Twente, close to the German border, certainly contributes to that interest. ‘I learned early on what happens when you’re out in the margins.’

Getting your own internet is one of those things. For his PhD, Salemink researched 145 broadband initiatives that, with help from the government, bypassed commercial telecommunication companies to try to install their own broadband cable. It has worked out in several places, which the initiators are very proud of. But not everyone is equally successful.

‘We can see that these initiatives are usually full of ambition in the beginning. But people quickly find out how complicated it is. They have to figure out for themselves where to put the boxes, they have to confer with the government about permits, they have to talk to building companies that have to lay the cable.’

‘Not happy’

Plus, the telecom companies are making trouble. Salemink: ‘Large cable companies are not even remotely happy about these initiatives. They’re always saying that they can’t do anything in these outlying areas because it’s not profitable, but when ordinary civilians manage it – for a competitive price, no less – it’s embarrassing for them.’

And so providers will do anything to stop these broadband initiatives. ‘There have been cases where they were maligned in opinion pieces in the media. They’d call the broadband initiatives amateurish and say that government support was a waste of money.’

‘Sometimes they’ll suddenly present their own plans. That confuses people: if a large company starts installing cable here, why should they buy a connection from the volunteers in the village? But that cable company is never going to deliver. Just presenting the plan is enough. They play some really dirty games’, he says, indignant.

Questions

The things that Salemink has seen during his research make him question the increasing degree to which the government lets citizens fend for themselves. ‘If this is what a participatory society is, we should seriously ask ourselves if that is in fact a good thing; whether it can be allowed for people to have so much stress and so many responsibilities. Volunteer burnout is a thing now.’

In an ideal world, says Salemink, the government would make sufficient funds available and volunteers would be encouraged to speak out when they have issues. ‘Currently, vulnerability is not an asset when it comes to volunteers. In my research I would sometimes ask people how much faith they still had in their own initiatives, and they’d tell me they were tired and despairing.’

But no one dares to say that to the government because they might withdraw their financial support, concludes Stamelink. ‘If the government expects civilian initiative, they should do everything in their power to help those people, and not hinder them.’

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