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Making new communications technology accessible: "Teletopias," "Teleports," aimed at popularizing "New Media"

Michele Kriegman
Sources:
1987, 'Making new communications technology accessible: "Teletopias," "Teleports," aimed at popularizing "New Media"', The Japan Times Weekly, 2/14: 7.

Photo captions:

1.        NEW MEDIA: The CAPTAIN computer lettering system seen in use here at right is used to make information taken from a database accessible to subscribers throughout the country. This is just one of the many projects being coordinated through the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications’ “Teletopia” program, which is designed to make new information technology available on a wider basis.

2.        COMMUNICATIONS: Various types of optical fiber  cables are seen here at left. These and other new forms of technology are being linked through the “Teletopia” program.

3.        Above, Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications’ Policy Bureau officials Taketo Horio (left) and Kazumasa Saito. Left, Kobe’s man-made Port Island. The city has proposed to install cable television on its two artificial islands, including Port Island, but the plan has not yet been approved.

 

Making new communications technology accessible

‘Teletopias,’ ‘Teleports’ aimed at popularizing ‘New Media’

It’s as if a science-fiction writer and a mad lexicologist had teamed up to re-design Japan. But Teletopias, Telecom Plazas and Teleports are all concepts devised by very serious officials of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) to spread the use of new telecommunications technology.

The past decade of so has seen the development of all sorts of new communications hardware: glass or optical fiber cables, personal computers, video discs, CATV (commonly called cable television). Besides these, there are less familiar developments like Japan’s INS project, which stands for Information Network System.

INS

Ins is Japanese-English for ISDN, short for Integrated Services Digital Network. This network can link telephone networks with computer networks and facsimile machine networks, making all three systems compatible and a lot cheaper. This and other recent inventions in telecommunications are called “New Media.” (“Old Media” refers to television, radio, telephone and newspapers.)

The first step MPT has taken to popularize New Media is to designate certain cities as Teletopias, or, “telecommunications utopias.” In a recent interview, Taketo Horio, of MPT’s Communications Policy Bureau, explained that Teletopias have two purposes.

“One purpose of Teletopias,” said Horio, “is to find ways to make these new inventions usable in daily life. A second one is to create a chain of model cities linked by these cable TV and computer networks. Since we can’t introduce new media everywhere at once, we’ve picked 60 model cities in Japan and hope they spread from there.”

Kazumasa Saito, another communications bureau official, explained that they choose as Teletopias towns that are already the hub of their district and that seem to have a particular “theme” or problem that can be solved using these new media.

In Nagasaki, for example, the theme is linking the city’s main hospital to small medical centers on surrounding islands. In Sapporo the problem is snow. Technology there will keep citizens informed of what roads have been cleared.

Private businesses and “third-sector” companies are supposed to construct these facilities. (Third-sector companies are joint ventures between private industry and government). Financing will come through loans from the Japan Development Bank and tax breaks.

Datebase

Saito’s favorite project is a database, or computer information system being implemented in Toyama. Since the Edo period, herbal medicines have been a traditional industry in Toyama. The database can send information about them all over the country. And even the unusual Chinese characters used in the names of these drugs can be duplicated by a new computer lettering system called CAPTAIN.

Matsue, another Teletopia town, is famous for its Kyoto-style o-kashi (cakes). As a result, an “o-kashi database” is being designed for Matsue. Horio explains that they “want to finish the computer program in time for their annual festival.”

Other Teletopias would use personal computers to offer home banking, ticket-booking and shopping systems and even a home “care” system to facilitate communication between nurses and elderly people who live alone.

“New Media use should be implemented two or three years after plans have been started, “ said Horio. “At the end of 1989 half of these telecommunications systems should be in use.”

Local level

One man who’s been intimately involved with the Teletopia project at the local level, Yasu Iwamoto, pointed out there could be snags in developing the new system. Iwamoto works in the Kobe City Planning Office and helped design two man-made islands in Kobe’s harbor. He’s been waiting for approval to install cable TV lines on these artificial islands since last March.

“It comes down to practical problems because of the division of New Media jurisdiction in to computers vs. communications,” said Iwamoto. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) has authority over computers while MPT oversees communications development. But the two fields overlap such that the internationally acclaimed MITI and the obscure but ambitious MPT are locked in rivalry.

In Kobe’s case, says Iwamoto, “What the two ministries wanted for the same area didn’t coincide….One group proposes installing cable television in an area that the other designates as off-limits to the necessary cable lines – it’s nonsense!!”

Other problems include competition from Old Media, Iwamoto said.

“The telephone, newspaper and TV are all convenient, while the New Media are harder to use,” he said. “Also they’re hardware-oriented and software just isn’t at the same stage yet.” Software are the programs in the computer or the shows you watch on a cable television screen. They’re the “contents” of all this gadgetry.

For Kobe, Iwamoto explained, “one suggestion for CATV is making local programs available in other regions. Watching a show from Hokkaido occasionally may sound interesting, but are you going to want to see it enough to subcribe to a whole cable service?”

In addition to Teletopias, MPT has proposed Telecom Plazas and Telecom Research Parks to make public access to New Media easier. Telecom Plazas are buildings faced with glass that allow residents and students to try out different computer and communication inventions for themselves.

Saito explained the concept of Telecom Research Parks.

“Private industry, say venture businesses that don’t have the capital for their own laboratories, can use these,” Saito said. “There are also lecture and conference rooms. In America these are called research ‘incubators’…that word has become ‘Kasumigaseki’ Japanese.” (Kasumigaseki is the Tokyo district where most government ministries are clustered.)

Teleport

By far the most promising project for foreign construction or telecommunications firms is the Teleport Plan. In the plan for Tokyo’s Teleport, 100 hectares of landfill area will be created to allow for new office complexes, satellite receiver stations and other telecommunications systems. Although plans for funding will not be decided in the Diet until this summer, construction is slated to begin this year.

Osaka and Yokohama are also designing Teleports. Kansai Airport, in the news recently, is one of the projects constituting Osaka Teleport. U.S. negotiators worked for months to obtain the right for U.S. firms to bid for some of its construction work. South Korea and other countries have also shown an interest, which Saito greets with relief.

“There’s a lot of domestic demand for this, and because the scale is so large, foreign firms can bid, too,” Saito said. “There’s been a lot of pressure from abroad about increasing domestic demand. This will bring us peace.”
 

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