China plans superhighway controls
By JOEL McCORMICK
IT was an odd time to explore the potential of the Chinese stretch of the global information superhighway.
Beijing had recently outlawed private ownership of satellite receivers, forced BBC World Service television off its north Asian footprint and stirred a frenzy of self-censorship in computer networks it could not police.
But the Arthur Anderson and Co communications guru John Craven soldiered on at a telecommunications conference this month.
Indeed, the Melbourne-based managing partner for telecommunications, Asia-Pacific, suggested China had an advantage building ''superhighway'' industries because it was not weighed down by outmoded ideas about technology's segregated place in the scheme of things - a pitfall that developed economies were still trying to climb out of.
In the West, Mr Craven said, industry had absorbed technology into existing processes instead of using information systems to reinvent them. China could invent and reinvent its enterprises as it began to implement the latest technologies, he said.
''The biggest issue facing the development of the superhighway is not the technology itself but the invention and reinvention of the processes that will make use of it,'' Mr Craven said at one point.
Before going to Beijing, Mr Craven was asked if China's obsession with controlling information would stall superhighway development.
He said every society set norms, running the gamut from pornography to politics, and that China was right to control how information would be phased in because failing to would risk chaos.
''Information is, however, an important currency. Its availability and accessibility is defining the have and have not nations - a bit like having a governor controlling the economic engine,'' he said.
''That's why I think the big issue is timing. I can accept the proposition that there have to be some controls now because there isn't the infrastructure to give a balanced and fair view, but that doesn't have to go on forever and I don't think that's happening in China.'' In his talk covering health care, banking, education and government services, Mr Craven said organisations had to bear in mind that information could now be segmented so that services would address markets of one customer - and that services would have to be available anytime, anywhere.
Before zeroing in on China's situation, Mr Craven considered the four sectors in general terms. In education, he suggested fact learning would be taken out of the classroom and be made a function of the network, freeing teachers to focus on context, concept and theory.
''The traditional teacher/school-oriented approach can be replaced with a system that can be infinitely tailored to meet diverse learning demands,'' Mr Craven said.
How companies gathered and distributed knowledge would also be a key factor in how they kept ahead of competitors, he said.
''Computer-aided education is an essential paradigm for the future [and] its introduction raises issues regarding funding, equity, content and control.'' Mr Craven suggested the superhighway could, ultimately, be used to re-engineer government-constituent relations back to the village model of centuries ago, ''putting the stake-holders in direct contact'' with elected and appointed officials.
He also said government could recoup investment in services by building in automated charge systems for the data it spent so much money on amassing.
Mr Craven said banking faced many opportunities, and many risks, as other players became involved in businesses that were once exclusively the banks.
Car purchases, once financed by banks, had been taken over by car companies. Giant retail chains and utilities were also side-stepping the banks by running their own credit operations.
''The question for the banking sector is how to maintain control of the industry,'' he said.
Relying on the spread of home banking facilities would not be enough to keep banks on top of the money game. Banks had to once again become the central part of transactions, linking buyers, suppliers, financiers and other parts of transactions such as insurance.
Mr Craven suggested the health care sector had to abandon its ''cottage'' industry structure and integrate into an information-sharing arrangement that the superhighway could now accommodate.
''Real integration has only advanced to the pilot stage,'' he said.
Mr Craven then zeroed in on China, quoting the usual variety of numbers that stagger: between 1992 and 1993, industrial production rose over 20 per cent; government telecommunications business rose by almost 60 per cent; and pager and mobile phone markets rose by 100 per cent.
In banking, 250 million people took out personal insurance in 1993; in education, adult education enrolment grew by 46 per cent.
While all this was happening, government social and health care networks expanded in parallel with general infrastructure development. Still, demand in China far outpaced supply, signalling the need to exploit opportunities posed by the superhighway.
Mr Craven said the superhighway meant different things to different people. In the United States, attention tended to be focused on the ''entertainment economy'' and economic growth was powered by theme parks, casinos, sports and interactive television.
As barren as that picture may appear to some, Mr Craven seemed intrigued by the possibilities.
''The only cloud on the horizon would appear to be the impact of runaway medical costs,'' he said.
For all that, the consultant seemed to be flying in a suspiciously clear patch - because he neglected to mention other clouds hovering over the US: high unemployment; intolerably high crime; and an inner-city public education system that has ceased to educate. These problems almost exactly mirror China's.
But Mr Craven sees China following its own course. He said its highway builders had to concern themselves with creating an infrastructure for tomorrow's global industries, not figuring out how to put Jurassic Park on line.
''It is up to the policy makers to work out how to establish those 21st century industries from day one and to avoid importing just today's world's best practice, which is already based on an outmoded technology paradigm,'' he said.