chapter  2
25 Pages

Power and mobile media: Structures, networks and control

Evolved from the late nineteenth century, the architectures, structures and processes of telecommunications are relatively familiar. Telecommunications has experienced great transformations for the past three decades from the early 1980s (Curwen 1997; Curwen and Whalley 2004). Broadly speaking, privatization of formerly government owned telecommunications carriers is now almost complete – though many issues and struggles remain. Ironically, just as privatization is taken for granted, the role of the state in telecommunications has re-entered policy debates and become a live issue. This is especially the case when it comes to perceived market failure in providing universal – or even widespread – access to advanced broadband services. Broadly speaking, as markets have failed to provided sufficient, pervasive

communications infrastructure of sufficient quality, an acceptable price, desired capacity, data rates and speeds, all sectors have turned to governments to underwrite, instigate or indeed supply such necessary networks. After the classic era of universal service (golden age myth as it was), the form and character of state agency, ownership and control, however, is different. While in some countries there are proposals for government to take ownership over facilities, what is emerging is an emphasis on public-private partnerships in telecommunications (a hybrid form common in other infrastructures, such as roads, railways and airports). The formerly government owned telecommunications carriers remain dominant in many markets – often with new owners and shareholding arrangements. Many of these carriers also offer mobile services; they need to be in this business because fixed-line services revenue is fast declining, while income from cell phones is still rising. The historically dominant carriers still enjoy a strong advantage in providing mobile services as part of an integrated – or at least more comprehensive – set of services and networks. This is ironic, given that cell phones have featured heavily in an important area of competition and deregulation, especially as a way to introduce more competition into telecommunications markets formerly believed to be natural monopolies. The commercial introduction of cell phones nicely coincided with the rise of neoliberal policies, and so in a number of markets licences for mobile services were some of the first

now well established national, regional, and global firms that specialize in cellular mobile services (Buellingen and Woerter 2004). The past 30 years of the twin projects of telecommunications liberalization and beginning of mobile services have certainly seen many new firms created and older corporations adapt and successfully assume new kinds of dominance. If this broad account of the recent evolution – co-evolution – of tele-

communications and cell phones over the past three decades (roughly late 1970s to late 2000s) holds, there are clear patterns of ownership, control and structures that relates to this. The challenge to our understanding of such patterns presents itself forcefully in the present phase of development. For some time telecommunications firms have been in great transformation, auguring their futures amid media convergence. Many telecommunications and mobile companies have interests in other areas of media and entertainment. Conversely many media companies own stakes in the telecommunications enterprises. The interests that bind the different stakeholders are most clearly evident in the ‘triple’ or ‘quadruple-play’, centring on the main services and infrastructures into households: telephony, internet, subscription television, cell phone. Accordingly, boards of telecommunications companies feature directors with interests and expertise in media, entertainment, internet and other now allied interests. The great investment challenge of telecommunications companies is bound

up with the difficult questions about network infrastructures and their futures. For some years, there has been discussion of next generation networks, and a recognition that the internet protocol and technologies will need to be incorporated in the very architecture of what comes next. If we are to leap-frog, or just catch up, from copper-based, circuit-switched telecommunications networks, to ultra-fast broadband networks to the home, or person, then such networks will be packet-switched, internet protocol-based. This immediately pits the telecommunications industry against powerful competitors from other sectors which also possess experience in building and operating networks – internet providers and technology firms, and television and media interests, to name just two groups. For mobile carriers, there are a set of questions about what comes next with

their network infrastructures. As we shall see, the question of what follows 3G networks (which really evolved bit by bit from their 2G predecessors) is bound up with a pot-pourri of different mobile and wireless networks (for instance, see Bohlin, Burgelman and Casal 2007). There is the little discussed question of what is the relationship between fast growing mobile networks and the next generation networks (of which an important component will still be wireline, cable networks – or else desired speeds will not be reliably delivered, at this stage at least). The large, not well understood questions of networks, however, are now only one part of global mobile media. Famously, the capabilities, computing power and intelligence are no longer centred in traditional nodes of networks. Such intelligence has been redistributed elsewhere: to the ‘edges’, as many theorists suggest; to the devices themselves; to the users; to new intermediaries in

This is the broad scene of contemporary networks in which mobile media is set. It is the argument of this book that to understand the emerging forms of communication and media designated by mobile media, then we need to take a global perspective. Further, that at the heart of such a global perspective is the question of power. I draw on a range of theories and concepts, but especially aim to illuminate how power is being shaped in the economies, processes, institutions, contexts, media forms, communicative architectures, cultural practices, use and apropriations that make mobile media. In this chapter, especially, I am broadly informed by the concepts and tools of

political economy, which remain very useful for grappling with these overlapping changes – a ‘cornerstone’ of this endeavour. The ‘centrality of power in the analysis of communication’ is something nominated by Vincent Mosco as an abiding preoccupation of the political economy approach (Mosco 2009: 220). Mosco offers two definitions of political economy, a less and more constrained meaning, respectively that are worth quoting to orient my discussion here:

In the narrow sense, political economy is the study of the social relations, particularly the power relations, that mutually constitute the production, distribution, and consumption of resources, including communication resources.