Building the Corporate Tele(Mono)polis

In January of this year Spain's telecommunications monopoly, Telefonica, introduced a nationwide TCP/IP based online service accessible from any of the company's 12 million telephone lines. "InfoVia" is promoted as Spain's wired future - an easy to use, economical and universal information superhighway. The Spain Wide Web has been born; but will it thrive?

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is a Mexican-Canadian electronic artist. Susie Ramsay is a Canadian choreographer and writer. They are both based in Madrid, where they are organizing the 5th International Conference on Cyberspace 5CYBERCONF

Although the stated objectives are undisputably timely and desirable, InfoVia is structured on a top-down model of information dissemination that reveals a narrow interpretation of the potential of the networked digital medium. InfoVia's design and pricing system will build a closed local marketplace that dismisses many democratizing possibilities of an open global network like the Internet.

What is InfoVia?

InfoVia is an intranet, that is, a private network with its own IP addresses and domain names which are not integrated into the Internet. Currently, only web-style HTTP services are available, although as a TCP/IP network it could potentially offer other features such as e-mail, telnet, FTP, Gopher and newsgroups. However, these features would be limited to local interaction among InfoVia users; for example, you would not be able to access Usenet newsgroups, visit World Wide Web sites, nor e-mail a friend on the Internet. Telefonica has been widely distributing a CD-ROM with the necessary freeware and shareware software to connect to InfoVia. Anyone in Spain with a PC, a modem and a telephone line can link up without any cost other than the price of a local phone call (1.70 DM per hour).

Telefonica is luring individual users into its private web to offer them up as potential consumers to the companies and institutions whose business they really want. Wooing individuals online is done through the promise of greater comfort and convenience: if with old media we could "receive" information about institutions such as banks and department stores, now with InfoVia we can supposedly "interact" with these very same institutions. Already 120 companies are offering services on InfoVia, including Spanish banks Banesto and Argentaria, software giant Microsoft, Spain's largest department store "El Corte Ingles," and some news media and Internet service providers. Telefonica hopes that companies catering to the Spanish market will continue paying premium prices to maintain a presence on InfoVia given the large number of people who are expected to connect to the service.

Like Spain's medieval walled cities, InfoVia has a few well-guarded doors to the outside world. Companies that sell access to the Internet, the so-called Internet service providers(ISPs), may offer their services to final users through InfoVia, provided they pay. (For ISPs, connection fees range from 2,170 and 3, 615 DM and monthly fees range from 720 to 10,000 DM according to the bandwidth needed.) Telefonica established connection and monthly fees. There are already many independent ISPs available through InfoVia that require users to pay. Currently, users can choose from over 30 different companies with a variety of connection and monthly fees to access the Internet through InfoVia. The connection fees range from zero to 120 DM and monthly fees for unlimited access range from 16 to 120 DM. The wide variation in prices is related to the number of services offered by the company, their technical support, their communications bandwidth and their included software. Over the last year there has been a dramatic decrease in the price of Internet access in most countries. In Spain, partly thanks to InfoVia, this has been almost a tenfold decrease.

To analyze InfoVia's strengths and weaknesses we will divide electronic networking into two main categories: connectivity (access to information) and publishing (contributing and disseminating information).