Thursday, January 26, 2006

Goodnight Vienna

It's been a great couple of days here in Vienna, with a lot of thought-provoking presentations and interesting new contacts with whom I look forward to communicating in future. It's also a great and beautiful city, though I think I speak for natives and visitors alike when I say that we could have done without the -12C nights. I guess it's safe to say that a lot of Europeans probably regard it as something of a backwater (culturally speaking this would be a mistake), though I'm now thinking maybe it's actually highly representative of Europe's future. If you drive around central London, for example, you see signs directing you to Knightsbridge, the City, or Tottenham, rather than Norwich, Birmingham, or Bournemouth, let alone Paris, Brussels or Amsterdam. In central Vienna, you see signs pointing you to Bratislava, Prague and Budapest.

My Viennese friends, with whom I had dinner last night (and who, incidentally, have had free cable from UPC for the past 18 months because the company never bothered to shut off their service when they cancelled it), reminded me (not that they needed to) that Austria was once far larger and more influential, and that modern Austrians have had to accept the fact that all this is history, yet they continue to look East, maybe out of nostalgia, or perhaps out of a realisation that much of their future will be influenced by the winds of change blowing from that direction.

To my mind, this conference begged similar questions about Europe's future position on the world stage and was similarly obsessed with the East. I wish I could count the number of times presenters cited FTTH in Korea and Japan, not only as enviable examples of how a competitive market can function in the favour of consumers, but also as examples of how huge, cheap bandwidth can feed new hardware and application development. More pointedly, the repeated discussion of correlation between broadband access speeds, market competition levels, and economic development prospects seems to pose some uncomfortable questions for a Europe struggling with its ability to innovate and transform its constituent economies to deal with the waves of change to come. I know it's only January, but I think it seems pretty clear that 2006 is the year when broadband becomes a highly visible political issue.

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