China needs to speed up development of internet technology
Hu Shuli says government must remove the barriers hindering the development of integrated internet, TV and telecoms services
At its first meeting last month, the internet security and information leading group, headed by President Xi Jinping, vowed to make China a leading internet technology power. With this in mind, the group's first task must be to kick-start the stalled development of "triple play" networks, which combine telecoms, internet broadband, and radio and TV services.
The digital revolution, led by the US, has had far-reaching consequences for societies. China has made significant progress, but has yet to fully benefit from IT development. The slow development of integrated TV, internet and telecoms services is a case in point.
In the US, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 removed regulatory barriers and opened up the communications industry to competition.
China has been slow to act. In January 2010, the State Council finally issued a plan to promote these "triple play" services after it had gone through almost 20 revisions. This was seen as a milestone. As a result, over the following two years, trial schemes were launched in 54 cities and various models emerged, from Shanghai and Wuhan, for example. Construction of a national network is progressing. However, institutional barriers have hampered development.
The pilot schemes are controlled by telecoms and broadcasting authorities, with the former in charge of internet data services, data outlets, service provider licences and related resources, while broadcasting authorities have the power to issue licences for internet TV services and control broadcasting platforms.
Because their management styles, mission and vision are different, there have been frequent clashes, hindering the scheme's progress.
Meanwhile, in 2011, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television issued strict guidelines for how internet TV content could be broadcast, and opposed opening up the platform to allow live broadcasts. This, too, has created obstacles to the service's development.
However, with the new leadership more determined to push ahead, there have been rumours that revised regulations will be issued for internet TV operators and content-service providers who have broken the rules. This has again caused chaos.
The original 2010 plan called on broadcasting and telecoms authorities to manage their industries in an open, transparent, fair and impartial manner, while a group was set up to address major problems that arose during the study, co-ordination and development of "triple play" services. The group was spearheaded by State Council officials with representatives from different government departments, including the propaganda department, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. But, as the facts show, it was unable to make any meaningful progress.
This time, state leaders have made it clear that the internet security and information group must play a leading role in addressing the problems. Clearly, the public must hope that this high-level body can break down the institutional barriers and forge ahead with development of integrated services.
Given the rapid economic and social changes in society, China cannot afford any more delays. This is especially true now, when the country's growth model is changing. But this change, from an industrial-oriented economy to one focused on the service industry, cannot be realised without the free flow of information.
However, it's clear that market forces are prevailing in some instances and creating room for "triple play" services, which it is hoped will provide the green shoots for China's new economy.
In fact, internet companies are already tapping into the online TV market, broadcasters with a licence to provide both internet and TV content are looking at ways to deliver TV programmes via the internet, while other broadcasters are seeking exemptions to get involved in the telecoms business.
The internet security and information leading group needs to cherish this entrepreneurial spirit, and help these enterprises by, for example, removing unreasonable policies and avoiding administrative intervention that may obstruct progress.
The relationship between the government and the market has long been the main barrier to economic reform. The stagnant development of the "triple play" scheme has again highlighted the fact.
The government needs to lift restrictions so companies that have the technical know-how to enter the market but haven't been able to, can now do so.
As Premier Li Keqiang said in his work report, the government must ensure that it gets the "triple play" scheme up and running, rather than just chanting slogans about the benefits it will bring.
This article is provided by Caixin Media, and the Chinese version of it was first published in Century Weekly magazine. www.caing.com