Continental Divide
by Stevan Alburty

From The Net
January 1996

1996 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




I happened to be in Europe when the verdict was announced in the ... well, let's just call it that trial ... and the Europeans were frankly mystified at why we were all so obsessed with it and why it took a year to conclude. (The continent has always liked its justice swift. For centuries, a guilty verdict was often followed by a rousing, public beheading. This tended to make juries get in the habit of hurrying to get to the good part.)

The Europeans seem to be equally bemused by our passion for online services, the Internet and the World Wide Web. They are suspicious of hype, and an incessant jet stream of news and enthusiasm has drifted eastward across the Pond to the point where many Europeans are, frankly, just a little sick to death of hearing us blither on about it. This irritability is understandable - the entire continent is still a bit post-traumatically shell-shocked by any upheaval containing the letter "W" - first WWI, then WWII, now the WWW. It's bound to make anybody a bit touchy.

Online services are virtually non-existent in Europe. Compuserve has had a presence here for years, but participation is spotty, with only about 200,000 members. America Online recently teamed up with the German publishing behemoth, Bertelsmann, to create and test a new online service with one of the scariest product names I've ever heard: One World. A consortium of continental investors has teamed with AT&T to offer the Luxembourg-based, Europe Online. And Bill Gates, a man who never met a market he didn't like, intends to launch his Microsoft Network in Europe as soon as he's finished digesting America.

It remains to be seen if any of these ventures will succeed in overcoming the enormous infrastructure and marketing obstacles which confront any entrant in the European online business.

As anyone who has attempted to use a modem in Europe has discovered, the telephone system infrastructure is maddeningly ancient and diverse. Although almost 70 percent of European phone switches are digitized, the wiring from the curb to the baseboard was installed back when Bardot still wore a bikini in public.

This is a continent which loves variety: Belgium brews over 500 different beers. This is approximately the number of different types of phone jacks a modem user seems to encounter during a trip to Europe. (Germany alone has three.) I asked a laptop-user on a train from Vienna to Zurich if his office used e-mail and if he ever dialed in while on the road. He looked at me as if I was mad King Ludwig.

Local calls are not free, so "surfing the net" is more gamble than gambol. The dial-in user is naggingly aware that the phone company meter is constantly ticking. Browsing takes on a slightly frenetic sense of urgency, even over ISDN lines, and in the afternoons, when American web-users wake up, rush hour on the transatlantic information superhighway causes transmissions to become glacially slow.

Each country has their own monopolistic phone company, much as the U.S. once had Ma Bell. Most are owned by the government themselves, so competition is currently non-existent. The European Commission has mandated liberalizing the telecommunications marketplace by January 1, 1998, but industry observers are skeptical about how quickly and efficiently even an open market may move.

Substitutes for a phone-based data network may come from a variety of surprising sources. Europe has a far-reaching, amazingly efficient train system. Those same railroads have an advanced fiber-optic network connecting stations throughout the continent. Only 1% of its high-speed bandwidth is currently being used. Additionally, the penetration of cable television, at least in the northern countries, is virtually ubiquitous. An alliance between the railroads and the cable companies may ultimately provide European homes with a plentiful digital pipeline.

Yet even if Europe eventually resolves its infrastructure issues, there are cultural impediments which may prove just as formidable. Americans are not as sociable as we'd all like to think we are. (We love humanity, it's all those people we can't stand.) Many of us spend hours alone in our cars commuting, and so the concept of sitting alone at home in front of a computer screen does not strike some of us as all that perverse. We are drawn to, almost mesmerized by, the anonymity of the net.

Europe grinds to a halt at twilight. Shops close and dinner tables groan from the convergence of food, friends and family. The solitude of online computing, a connection between people which is more technical than tactile, is anathema to the European sensibility. Their perception of cyberspace is more void than value.

The net may be international, but it appears as if most of spiders which weave its web and most of the willing flies it ensnares are, for now, very much domestic.