Reminiscences of Dr Frederick Syer, MBE PhD DIC BA DipEd, Reader in Engineering Mathematics

Fred Syer was an amazing human being as well as an inspiring lecturer.  He was in his early sixties when I first encountered him, when I was a final year electrical engineering student: he was white bearded, his shoulders somewhat hunched, a paunch on an otherwise thin body, with a continually twinkling cheerfulness about his rather boney face.

I met him at his first lecture to the Engineering Maths IV class of 1966, in a second-floor lecture room in Old Engineering, seating perhaps thirty of us. He began by introducing himself formally as Dr Syer, but managed – as though by mistake – to reveal that his name was Fred.  He then distributed some hand-ripped cardboard covers from old school exercise books for us to write on in answering some questions he wished to put to us. (Fred was practising recycling well before this became fashionable.)  His first three questions were not unexpected: our name, a contact number, and our mathematics results in the previous years.

But then he asked: “Please write down if you have any special disadvantages that I should take into account in assessing your work, such as your being blind, deaf  … or a member of a secret society.”

This drew a laugh.

“Well then, logically I should also ask you:  do you have any special advantages that I should take into account, such as your being happily married?”.

In those days we engineering students tended to be all single males, so this question drew some large guffaws.

Fred turned on us. “Don’t laugh: being happily married can make the most wonderful difference to your lives.”  We felt he was talking from deep personal experience.

He asked us to hand in our answers, and then said: “Well, since I’ve asked you for personal information, it’s only fair I should tell you something about myself.

“I suffer from a fatal disease, multiple sclerosis.”

He then wrote a seven-digit number on the board. (Remember, this was 1966.) “This is the phone number for my wife, Kitty.  If I should drop dead during a lecture, I want you to telephone her.”

There was a deeply shocked silence.

“Don’t worry,” he said with an endearing smile, “I’ve never been known to drop dead in a lecture yet.’

After that, we were eating out of his hand for the rest of the year.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

1966 was an active year for political demonstrations against the Vietnam War; the Menzies government had introduced conscription in 1965, and several of us were ‘drafted’ that year when our birthdays were randomly balloted.

One day at the beginning of class, Dr Syer said that had something important to tell us.  “I was proud to serve in the Royal Australian Airforce during the Second World War.  I’m equally proud to support one of your class members who is standing up for his right to protest against the Vietnam War.”

It turned out that one of our number, Andy Blunden, had featured on the front page of the previous day’s Herald, for burning his call-up papers.  Andy finished the year with a first class degree in Civil Engineering, went underground for a while, managed to leave the country without being arrested by the authorities, spent some time in Paris and then earned a PhD in structural engineering at the University College London.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

In winter we noticed his symptoms got noticeably worse. On bad days, he would call upon a student to read out a passage from a textbook, while he lay on his back on a low podium near the front of the class, and conducted a question and answer session from there.  On really bad days, he had to stay at home, and be replaced by a colleague from the Mathematics Department.

Partly because I had a relative who also suffered from multiple sclerosis, and partly because I enjoyed so much the mathematics he was teaching us, I got to know Fred quite well that year (although in those respectful times he was always ‘Dr Syer’ to me, until well after I graduated).

He told me that in 1957, his physical symptoms had reached an all-time low.  “I had to bring spare underwear in my briefcase to work each day, because sometimes I couldn’t make it to the facilities in time.”  He pointed his two index fingers at each other. “And some days I couldn’t control my fingers so they would touch each other.”

His deteriorating health made it impossible to continue lecturing. On medical advice, he took extended sick leave from the University and decided to go to London with his first wife Margherita to undertake a PhD, which he was awarded in March 1960.  (In those days, fewer than half of our lecturers had doctorates.)

“My thesis supervisor was a blind mathematician. Between the two of us, we made one whole man.” (A ‘whole man’ with two amazing minds, I thought at the time.)

Sadly for Fred, Margherita became seriously ill on her return to Melbourne, and died in February 1961.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Three years after Fred returned to Australia from London to resume lecturing, he found he was falling in love with a mature aged student, Kitty, in one of his third year BA mathematics classes. “I had this terrible dilemma of a conflict of interest, and felt I had to ask a colleague to mark her exams,” he told me. He confided his problem to a close friend, John (‘Jack’) Ryan – another brilliant and eccentric lecturer in engineering mathematics, with whom Fred used to enjoy discussing politics and religion on a regular basis. (John was an active member of the editorial committee of the left-wing Catholic Worker, and was also Secretary of the Anti-Hanging Committee in Melbourne.)  Fred said: “When I told John I’d fallen in love with a student, his response was:  ‘You cad!!’”

Another colleague from Mathematics agreed to mark the Pure Mathematics IIIB exam papers that year; Kitty, a science graduate who was already working as a hospital microbiologist, not only passed but actually topped the class; and a year later, while in her thirties, she married Fred and later had two children with him, Anne and John.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Fred was very popular with his academic colleagues as well as his students, and I was pleased to learn some months afterwards that at a farewell function in the Faculty of Engineering in 1967, he had been awarded a ‘private chair in engineering mathematics’… in his case, a splendidly upholstered leather one.

Due in large measure to the full-time care Fred received from Kitty, he lived to reach his 90th birthday, still mentally alert although considerably physically handicapped.

An iconic photo of Fred, taken while lecturing at the University’s temporary Mildura campus in 1948,  appears on p.139 of Increasing Momentum, Carolyn Rasmussen’s magnificent history of engineering at the University of Melbourne from 1861-2004.  Emeritus Professor Len Stevens tells me that he was one of Fred’s students at Mildura, commencing in the first year the engineering course was offered there in 1947.

Peter Gerrand (Electrical, 1966) – with thanks to Kitty Syer and Andy Blunden for feedback on the original draft.

January 2011

Unacceptable Quality of Service: why industry self regulation is not working

The poor Quality of Service experienced by almost 200,000 consumers using Australian telecommunications services over the past year was starkly highlighted shortly before this November 2011 edition of TJA was ‘put to press’.

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman’s 2011 Annual Report, released on 7 November, revealed that the TIO had received 197,662 new customer complaints in 2010-11 – an astonishing 18% more than in the previous, equally shocking, year.

The TIO Report ‘attributes the rise to mobile phone service faults and increased smart phones use. […] More than half the new complaints received by the TIO (over 112,000) were about mobile phone services, an increase of 51 per cent from the previous year. […] The most common mobile phone complaint issue was about service faults, with 56,475 new complaints made to the TIO, a 180 per cent increase. Consumers were most concerned about poor mobile coverage and service drop-outs.’

Looking back, in response to the horror statistics in the TIO’s previous Annual Report (2010), Teresa Corbin of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) had called on the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to impose penalties on telecommunications companies with poor customer service. That was in February 2011.

In response to the 2010 TIO Report, the industry’s supply-side peak body, the Communications Alliance, worked for 12 months and on 25 October 2011 released a draft Telecommunications Consumer Protection (TCP) code that the industry organisation says ‘will reduce bill shock and provide better information to consumers’. This code aims to avoid in future the more generic abuses of pricing, billing and advertising highlighted in the TIO’s 2010 Report, but does not address the network service faults that have grown significantly during the same period.

On 8 September ACMA released its ‘Reconnecting the Customer’ report, the result of an 18 month inquiry into ways of dealing with telecommunications customer complaints. It concentrates on ‘five substantive changes to make buying and using a mobile phone or Internet service much simpler’, and its strategy was to formally invite ‘the industry’ to incorporate the following changes to its Telecommunications Consumer Protection (TCP) code by February 2012:

  1. Clearer pricing information in advertisements, allowing consumers to more easily compare services
  2. Improved and more consistent pre-sale information about plans
  3. Developing meaningful performance metrics which allow consumers to compare providers
  4. Tools for consumers to monitor usage and expenditure
  5. Better complaints-handling by providers

It is noteworthy that none of these recommendations deal explicitly with poor network quality of service (QoS) issues, i.e. the service faults that feature heavily in the 2011 TIO Report.

The big stick in the ACMA Report is its threat to mandate changes through regulation if ‘the industry’ does not rewrite the TCP code adequately by February 2012 to address ACMA’s concerns. However ACMA’s concerns do not relate explicitly to the network QoS issues identified in the TIO reports.

The fundamental structural weakness with ACMA’S approach

Read more here.

The National Broadband Network. The defining issue in Australian politics in 2010

The Coalition parties spent most of 2010 criticising the NBN, and threatening to shut it down, without offering any broadband policy of their own until eleven days before the federal election.  Perhaps this reflected their difficulty in finding common ground between the Liberal Party’s preference to ‘leave it to the market’ versus the Nationals’ determination to win a subsidised roll-out of broadband infrastructure in the rural areas they represent, based on their long memory of market failure.  After all, their Senate leader Barnaby Joyce’s first reaction to the upgraded NBN plan, when announced in April 2009, was ‘How could we disagree with something that is quite evidently our idea …’

The myths peddled about the NBN this year have been quite extraordinary.  The include ‘The technology [i.e. optical fibre] will be out of date by the time the NBN is implemented’, ‘Nobody needs 100 Mbps’ and ‘The current technologies [HFC cable, advanced DSL and mobile access] can provide 100 Mbps to the home without any need for government subsidy in the cities’.  The absurdity of these and other furphies provoked Rod Tucker to publish an excellent article in our previous issue debunking these ‘urban myths’.

Yet many of these myths were sustained in the Coalition’s Broadband Policy, when it finally appeared on 10 August and was found to be a composite of two disparate policies.  The first policy was for the regions (and outer metropolitan black spots), where $6.315 billion would be spent via the private sector (over seven years) to roll out an Opel-like network based on largely fixed wireless solutions, bringing rural Australia to parity with current metropolitan broadband. The second policy, for the majority of Australian dwellings, in the cities, would offer no subsidies and therefore rely on the private sector to provide more of the same (using DSL, HFC cable and mobile access).  As Rod Tucker memorably wrote in an opinion piece published on the same day:

‘The idea that we could use very fast broadband based on mobile technologies and existing fibre defies the laws of physics.’ (The Age, 10 August 2010)

Most surprisingly, the Coalition’s policy was to overturn Telstra’s hard-won agreement with the Government to sell its fixed network access infrastructure to the NBN.  If implemented, this policy would return Telstra to the dominant market position that has, in the view of the ACCC, the Productivity Commission and most independent commentators, stifled all competitive infrastructure investment in broadband access since 1997.

Closely following the Coalition’s broadband policy announcement, an ‘Alliance for Affordable Broadband’, consisting of eight junior telcos, proclaimed their support for this policy and, by implication, their willingness to share the $6.315 billion on offer. Given the long struggle by most Australian telcos to achieve any profitable business whatsoever in competition with the formidable Telstra, it is understandable that these eight would be attracted by the possibility of getting a slice of such a huge and unexpected government subsidy to the private sector.

As we know, the Gillard Labor Government was returned to office on 14 September with the support of the Greens and three independent MPs – all of whom had strongly supported the National Broadband Network. Indeed the two NSW Independents informed the public on 7 September that the NBN was a crucial reason for their choosing to support the Gillard Government. Given the Coalition Opposition’s trenchant attacks on the NBN throughout the election campaign, it can be accurately said that the Australian electorate on 21 August voted, by a very narrow majority, for a Government based on the parties and independents that would support the implementation of Labor’s NBN policy.  As a result some have called this ‘the broadband election’. Indeed it is difficult to find any other policy issue on which there was such a gulf between the positions of the winning and losing parties.

So the NBN, a rather complex policy for implementing advanced telecommunications infrastructure, has become the defining issue in Australian politics in 2010.  It is as though Australians are divided into those who are pleased to see Australia leading the world in implementing a strategically valuable piece of national infrastructure, and those who are worried that we are leading and not following, spending far too much on it, and/or simply not ‘leaving it to the market’.

Since Malcolm Turnbull was appointed Shadow Minister for Broadband and Communications on 14 September, he has exhibited characteristic pragmatism, and has moved the Coalition policy, slowly step by step, towards potential acceptance of much of the electorally popular NBN. The structural or functional separation of Telstra is now conceded as ‘sensible’; and on 24 October he declared that

‘if the Productivity Commission were to report on the [NBN] as they should, and if they were to give it a big tick from a cost-benefit point of view, it would be incredibly persuasive.”

Whether this position will be supported by his Party Leader is yet to be seen; it would seem to be almost a 180 degree shift from the marching orders Mr Abbott gave Mr Turnbull, ‘to demolish the NBN’.  TJA looks forward to publishing articles providing critiques of the NBN policies of the major parties, and of the NBN rollout, in the year ahead.

Read more here.

Then and now – such different perspectives on telecommunications infrastructure investment

Soon after this [August 2010] edition of TJA appears online, the 2010 Australian federal election (on 21 August) will have been decided, and we will know if the outgoing government’s $43bn National Broadband Network is to continue to be rolled out over Australia, or whether it will be ingloriously ‘scrapped’.

In an election in which the major political parties have adopted me-too policies on most issues likely to influence swinging voters in the marginal seats, it is conspicuous that one of the few areas of major differentiation between their policies lies in telecommunications. On 10 August the Opposition Coalition parties finally revealed their policy on what they plan to do in replacing the NBN they have long proposed to scrap. Their policy is amazingly inadequate and backward looking.

It is inadequate not just in infrastructure terms, where it will replace a 30-year future-proof national optical fibre access network (to 93% of premises) with a patchwork of largely fixed wireless access networks which will provide only second-rate Internet access speeds – even by our current, internationally uncompetitive standards – to regional and outer-metropolitan premises only.

But structurally worse than that, while proclaiming that ‘competition is better than monopoly’, their policy would directly subvert competition with the dominant carrier. Telstra would retain its monopoly ownership of the current fixed access network, and would no longer be structurally separated into arms-length wholesale and retail network businesses as per the agreement Telstra signed with the Government in June – to the relief of virtually the whole telecommunications industry.  By not addressing Telstra’s access monopoly, the Coalition’s policy would push the industry back to the previous regulatory era, in which a ten-year ‘capital strike’ on competitive broadband infrastructure investment was the direct consequence of a regime that allowed the vertically integrated Telstra to leverage its wholesale fixed network to significantly inhibit competition at the retail service level.

The Internet Industry Association, representing Australia’s Internet Service Providers, strongly advocates

‘bipartisan support for an open access, wholesale only, fibre-to-the-premises network with equivalent access for all access seekers, extended to provide ubiquitous super fast broadband access to all homes and businesses with wireless and satellite technologies’ (IIA, July 2010, ’Principles for a Digital Economy’)

In other words, the Association advocates infrastructure equivalent to the NBN.

Read more here.

Promoting the regional languages of Spain online

From the early 1990s, Basque, Catalan and Galician language nationalists pioneered use of the Internet to promote their languages.  This article outlines some of their initiatives, covered in much greater detail in a new book by the author.1

Written June 2010: read more here.

The potential to win a .gal domain to support worldwide Galician culture – a view from the Antipodes


Thanks to the Internet, the cultural links between Galicia and Australia are stronger and more numerous than ever.  Tourists check out the websites of each country while planning their pilgrimages (secular or religious) to Santiago, or their visits to Australia’s Red Centre or the Great Barrier Reef. Scholars and the merely curious use Wikipedia and thousands of other multilingual websites to reconnoitre the history of the other country and its arts, architectures, technologies and literature.

But the propia lingua of Galicia, galego, is unknown to most Australians. Indeed galego’s very existence as a separate language passes largely unobserved, even to some enthusiastic but monoglot Australian pilgrims on the road to Santiago. The same was broadly true of the Catalan language for Australians who had never visited Catalonia, prior to the Australian expatriate Robert Hughes’ masterpiece Barcelona (1991) and the popular success in Australia of the film L’Auberge Espagnole [The Spanish Apartment] (2002), set in the same city.

For this reason the current campaign to win a Top Level Domain in the Internet for the worldwide Galician language and culture is highly significant. It aims to win global recognition and prestige via the Internet for one of the world’s most widespread languages – but a language still relatively unknown in the Anglophone world.

The impetus: ICANN agrees to .cat

On 15 September 2005 ICANN[1], the governing body for the Internet domain name system, did something unprecedented in the history of the Internet: it assigned a new Top Level Domain (TLD) for use by a single language-based culture, in this case .cat for Catalan.

This decision was achieved following a long and fascinating campaign against several major obstacles, recorded elsewhere (Gerrand 2006A). During this long campaign the Catalan proponents found it necessary to conceptually  “change the passport for the dictionary” in order to achieve their goal. Their starting point in 1996 was to win recognition of the ‘historic nation’ of Catalonia in cyberspace through allocation of the .ct  country code, thus implying equivalent status with recognized countries. When this request was emphatically rejected, they changed their goal to winning recognition of Catalan culture, worldwide, at the highest level of prestige, by seeking an appropriate Top Level Domain, .cat, coinciding with the ISO 639-2 three-letter code for the Catalan-Valencian-Balear language. When presented in this form, the request satisfied ICANN’s selection criteria for new TLDs, and ICANN demonstrated its integrity by granting the request, despite concerns about creating a precedent for other, more controversial cultural, political or religious minorities (Gerrand 2006).

The ICANN decision raised hopes and stimulated activity by several other regional language groups to gain similar international recognition. Welsh nationalists are campaigning for a .cym, the Scots for a .sco, the Bretons for a .bzh, and the Galicians for a .gal. Figure 1 shows the logos used in these campaigns. [See Fig. 1 at the end of this paper]

Why is it so important to have a Top Level Domain for a minority language?  To explain this, it is necessary to provide some background on the evolution of the Internet domain name system.

Background on the Internet Domain Name system

From early 1972 until his death in 1998, the growth of the Internet was coordinated by an exceptional individual, Dr Jon Postel, based at the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) of the University of South California. During this 27-year period he co-ordinated the introduction of all the major enhancements to the Internet’s architecture and its traffic routing system, including the allocation of Internet Protocol addresses and, from 1983, Top Level Domains. His colleague Dr Paul Mockapetris at ISI invented and implemented the Internet’s first domain name system, with Jon Postel’s collaboration. A tribute to Jon Postel’s achievements can be found at

In 1984 Jon Postel’s team implemented the first ‘generic Top Level Domains’ or gTLDs: .edu, .gov, .mil, .arpa,.com, .net and .org. The original purpose of domain names was not to support website addresses – after all, the World Wide Web protocol was not invented until six years later – but to make email addresses and file transfer addresses more humanly intelligible and their underlying Internet Protocol addresses mathematically resolvable, given the spaghetti-like complexity of the Internet’s underlying traffic routes. The hierarchical structure of a domain name, e.g. for La Trobe University within the tertiary education sector of .au  (Australia), permits delegation of the management of domain names as well as efficient hierarchical routing of Internet traffic, previously a problem.

The initial seven gTLDs neatly provided for all the Internet’s then stakeholders   .edu was made available to the education institutions hosting the Internet’s collaborating researchers, although it was in practice restricted to accredited universities in the USA and Canada (the University of Barcelona at is an interesting exception).   .gov and .mil were made available to the Internet’s original sponsors in the US military and US government, and .arpa was reserved for technical information needed to run the Internet’s first incarnation, the ARPANet. In 1988 an additional gTLD .int  was introduced for international government-treaty organizations such as the UN.

.com, .net and .org were reserved for the growing number of non-university and non-government organizations wishing to make use of the Internet’s network infrastructure from the early 1980s onwards. The registered entities using domains within these TLDs were initially required to be respectively commercial (e.g., a network provider (e.g. or not-for-profit (e.g But in 1995 the Internet’s then major sponsor, the US National Science Foundation, allowed the monopoly domain name registry Network Solutions Inc. to cease checking each applicant’s eligibility, and henceforth these distinctions have been self-policed by the applicants, and thus often abused.

A brilliant policy decision by Jon Postel was to introduce the concept of country code TLDs (ccTLDs), using the pre-existing International Standard Organization’s list of two-letter codes for countries, ISO 3166-1. This avoided the need for him to arbitrate on requests from countries such as Taiwan whose independent status was denied by others: he could simply refer applicants to the ISO. Progressively from 1985 he began to delegate ccTLDs to trusted Internet researchers from the relevant countries, usually researchers he got to know at Internet Engineering Task Force Meetings, giving them the job of administering their national country codes, starting with Canada (.ca), the Netherlands (.nl), Norway (.no), Sweden (.se), the UK (.uk) and the USA (.us).  He personally managed .us as well as .org for many years.

The only disadvantage in the choice of the ISO 3166 standard was that it includes codes not just for the countries recognized by the United Nations, but also many of their remote islands and territories. For example Fig.2 shows that Australia’s Norfolk Island, Cocos Islands and Christmas Islands all have their own ccTLDs:, .nf, .cc and .cx respectively.

This is because the ISO 3166 standard was developed well before the Internet, for the purpose of providing convenient short codes for addressing parcels and telegrams as part of international posts and telegraphs, amongst other uses.

As a second example, Fig. 3 shows that not only are ccTLDs assigned to Spain (.es) and its neighbours Andorra (.ad), France (.fr) and Portugal (.po), but also to Gibraltar (.gi) – as a remote territory of the UK.  This has been a sore point for Welsh and Scots nationalists, who of course are unable to gain equivalent recognition for their home territories, being geographically internal to, as well as politically part of, the UK. And for similar reasons the ISO 3166 Maintenance Agency will not assign country codes to Catalonia, Galicia, Andalusia or the Basque Country. It is important to recognize that .cat  was allocated by ICANN for use by the global Catalan culture; it is emphatically not restricted to entities within the geographical or political boundaries of Catalonia.

Opening up of Top Level Domains (TLDs)

In November 1998 the US Government established ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Addresses, Names and Numbers Inc., as a not-for-profit corporation based in California, under contract to the US Department of Culture.

ICANN was established to manage the Internet’s domain names and Internet Protocol numbers and addresses. ICANN’s Board is structured to be internationally representative. It has prudently always being chaired by a US citizen, but its second President and CEO was British, and its current President and CEO is Australian (Dr Paul Twomey). To date ICANN has had one Australian and two Spanish Board members, the most famous being the Catalan lawyer and academic Amadeu Abril i Abril.

ICANN’s first priority was to introduce competition into the registration of the .com, .net and .org Top Level Domains, which it achieved in July 1999.  From early 2000 it invited applications for new TLDs. As each winner would gain the exclusive right to run the registry (data base) for its new TLD, and the value of .com, .net and .org had been worth billions of dollars to the former monopoly registry, competition was intense, especially for new TLDs aiming at a broad commercial market.

In November 2000 ICANN selected four new generic TLDs: .biz  (as a direct rival to .com), .info (for any source of information), .name (for individuals’ names) and .pro (for professionals such as accountants and medicos)  and three new ‘sponsored’ TLDs: .aero (for the aviation industry), .coop (for registered co-operatives) and .museum (for museums).

The distinction between a generic TLD and a sponsored TLD is that ICANN sets and regulates the simple eligibility conditions for each gTLD (and these rules are generally self-policing), whereas for each sponsored TLD, ICANN delegates the eligibility rules and regulation to the sponsoring registry, although it will dictate general constraints in its contract with the registry.

Amadeu Abril, who masterminded the Catalan campaign to win a TLD, persuaded his colleagues against submitting an application in this first round. He had correctly predicted:

There would be a large number of proposals, and ICANN would only choose a small number of gTLDs. All the difficult proposals would be put aside. Anything complex, like .geo, or controversial, like .travel, would not be accepted. It was better to keep our powder dry for the main battle. (Gerrand 2006)

It is notable that of the seven new TLDs selected by ICANN in 2000, all but .museum were primarily intended for commercial use.  After all, ICANN’s governing contract was with the US Department of Commerce, not with a Department of Culture.

In 2004 ICANN invited a second round of applications for TLDs. This time the Catalans applied and were successful, winning the .cat domain against the opposition of the outgoing Aznar government in Spain, who saw it as a gesture of political independence. They also had to contend with the nervousness of several ICANN decision makers, aware of the hypersensitiveness of the White House to certain language minority groups who might potentially benefit from this precedent (Gerrand 2006A).

Of the six new TLDs chosen by ICANN in the second round, the .cat domain was the only whose prime purpose is e-culture. The others approved were .eu (heavily marketed to businesses operating in Europe), .asia (ditto for Asia), .mobi (for mobile applications), .jobs (self evident) and .travel (for travel agents. 

Of the 13 new TLDs chosen by ICANN, nine are focussed on e-commerce (.aero, .biz, .info, .name, .coop, .pro, .mobi, .job, .travel

);  two are geo-political brands, representing entities too large to qualify for single country codes (.asia and .eu ); and two are primarily focussed on e-culture: .cat and .museum

But why is a TLD so important?

Domain names operate as marketing brands, whether on email addresses or on URLs for websites.  Because every domain name terminates on a Top Level Domain, these have a reinforcing effect in the public consciousness. Readers may remember that at the height of the 1995-2000 Internet boom, SUN Computer Systems was advertising itself as being “the dot in .com”.  .com  is of course the most prevalent TLD of all. At the time of writing (February 2007) .com is used in the addresses of more than 4 billion web pages.

Clearly if your aim is to market yourself as a truly international commercial brand, you will advertise your company on the Internet as a rather than as a

On the other hand, many commercial entities, as well as cultural entities, prefer to align their brand with a particular country code. Thus amongst quality national newspapers we see an, a and a But many minority and regional language nationalists emphatically do not want to use their relevant country codes, as this could be seen to imply a hierarchical subordination to the language and culture of the nation-state to which they legally, but perhaps not sentimentally, belong.  For this reason, regional and minority language groups have preferred to use politically neutral TLDs such as .net and .org: some examples are the URLs for the Royal Basque Academy, for the Institut d’Estudis Catalans, for the Royal Galician Academy,  and for Scots Gaelic language enthusiasts.

But use of .net and .org have been merely the temporary, default options for minority and regional language nationalists. What are their motivations for seeking special TLDs of their own?

In fact ICANN staff asked this question of Amadeu Abril:

ICANN asked: ‘Why do you need a Top Level Domain?’  It is true that a lower level domain would have technically sufficed. But you need a goal. You need something to aim for. A TLD puts you in the top league. You are not then just a regional team. Prestige and glamour are important for sustaining a living language. You don’t like being in the second league. It is important to demonstrate that Catalan, with its ten million speakers, is a top-division language.

Secondly, it was a matter of identity. A TLD is important for the self-esteem of people feeling that they are Catalan. For Catalans in the 19th century, a critical step was having our own literature – and later in that century, our own newspapers. In the early 20th century a critical step was having Catalan schools, because without the schools our language would have died out. Then the next battle was to have radio and TV channels in Catalan. Books, newspapers, schools, radio and TV are still important. But in the 21st century the Internet is also important.

Thirdly a TLD gives visibility to the language. Seen from Reston or Seattle[2] you are on the map. They think: Oh, we should also publish a version of our software in Catalan. It enables the rest of the world to see that we exist. And all this without moving borders, without fighting anyone.

Fourthly it gives us the opportunity to aggregate our cultural activities in the Internet. [Amadeu Abril, interviewed on 19 September 2006] (Gerrand 2006)

How .cat met ICANN’s criteria

In its first and second rounds for new TLD proposals, ICANN has been meticulous in defining and carrying out a reasonably transparent selection process. On both occasions it has clearly specified the criteria to be met for new TLD registries, and used the application fees to fund arms-length, independent expert review panels to judge the technical and financial capabilities of the applicants.

However once the ICANN receives a report from its expert review panels that an application has met the technical and financial selection criteria, it is still up to the ICANN Board to make a final decision, based on the overall merits of the application, and with inputs from ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee. This can be politically difficult for some applications, such as .cat, .asia and .xxx (which is approved in principle by the ICANN Board but not yet approved in practice).

In the second round (2004-6), the selection criteria put emphasis on demonstrating “broad–based support from the community it is intended to represent.” It was essential that puntCAT, the sponsoring organization for the bid for .cat, was able to demonstrate that it had received truly global support, well beyond the political and geographical boundaries of Spain. puntCAT did this amply, citing 68,000 individual messages of support, as well a supporting membership of over 90 affiliated Catalan cultural organizations, from around the world.

The proposal drew on Abril’s experience with the CORE (Council of Registrars) registry to meet the selection criteria for a sound business model (to ensure financial stability) and for a sound technical strategy (for operational stability). But Abril stresses that the .cat application was an extensive team effort, drawing upon active support from numerous web designers, technical advisors and translators as well as from banks and governments (Gerrand 2006).

puntCAT’s formal application to ICANN for .cat defined its community of interest, or in ICANN’s terms the ‘Sponsored TLD Community’, as follows:

The .cat TLD is intended for the Catalan Linguistic and Cultural Community, i.e., for those identifying themselves and/or their activities with the promotion of those areas in the Internet. (puntCAT 2004)

The application cited studies showing that Catalan was between the nineteenth and twenty–third most common language used on the Internet — but dispersed over many ccTLDs and gTLDs (puntCAT 2004), (Mas i Hernàndez 2003).

The .cat registry would be controlled by Fundació puntCAT [i.e. the puntCAT Foundation], to be created as the successor to the Associació puntCAT, and which would be

a non–for–profit, non–partisan [organization], representative of the whole community. Participation to the policy–making procedures and election of the Trustees will be open to all registrants, in a structured way that will prevent any given sector of activity or special interest to prevail in the long run. It is not a pre–existing entity from that community trying to evolve into new fields of activity, but a platform created by the community itself for the sole purpose of collectively managing the .cat TLD. (puntCAT 2004)

The application provided a list of 67 supporting Catalan cultural institutions, federations, centres, professional associations and learned societies, from Europe, North, South and Central America — even the Catalan (radio) Broadcasting Society of Melbourne, Australia (puntCAT 2004).

Implementation of .cat

Registration of domain names in .cat began in 13 Feb 06, in a 3-stage process designed to give priority to existing organizations promoting Catalan language and culture. 9,000 applications were received in the first week. All domain names are sold at the second level, such as, following the tradition of .com, .net and org, .fr and .es  (but not .au or .uk, which sell domains at the third level, e.g. or

As an early boost to puntCAT’s cash flow, the Generalitat de Catalunya supplied €200,000 to fund the registration of all public organizations within Catalonia.  But early applications from outside Catalonia included the Municipality of Algher in Sardinia, and the prestigious Joan Fuster Institute in Valencia.

By the end of its first year of operation, on 12 February 2007, puntCAT had registered 21,000 domain names on .cat, and its clients had implemented 2.9 million web pages within this domain. This figure is far greater than the numbers of web pages implemented by the same date on either .aero (453,000) or .travel (194,000), which both also use the CORE registry platform.

ICANN’s new criteria for sponsored TLDs

In 2006 ICANN conducted a public policy development process on the need for new generic TLDs, culminating in a ‘final draft report’ published on 15 February 2007 (Wiliams 2007). The report’s recommendations are to broadly continue with the same approach as in previous selection rounds, except for explicitly allowing for new TLDs with non-Roman scripts, i.e. using the new Internationalized Domain Name system. For this reason it is not expected that the selection criteria will differ significantly fro those used in the past; which means that .cat remains a good precedent for .gal and other ‘major’ minority languages having significant global reach.

Current expectations (February 2007) within ICANN circles are that the next round of invitations for proposals for new TLDs will occur in the first quarter of 2008.

The other essential infrastructure

Gaining higher visibility through use of a Top Level Domain (TLD) is not, of course, sufficient to promote the increased use of that language.

The keyl factors enabling Internet usage in a particular language are:

  • the availability of high–speed (broadband) Internet access at affordable prices for the relevant users;
  • the availability of a human–computer interface in the target language from the operating system used (e.g., Windows, Mac or Linux);
  • the availability of the most popular office applications in the target language;
  • the availability of powerful search engines that can both search discriminately and report back in the target language; and,
  • (for comprehensiveness) the ability of the Domain Name System to support all characters of that language.

In their home region of Catalonia, the Catalans have most of these bases well covered.

Broadband access to the Internet in Spain in December 2004 had an average penetration of 8.4 per capita (OECD 2005), rising to 10.5 p.c. by June 2006  and rising, but well below the OECD average of 15.5 (OECD 2006).  However the Generalitat took steps in 2004 to provide affordable broadband access to 100 percent of Catalan households, including remote dwellings in the Pyrenees. It committed to funding 60 percent of a public–private joint venture that will roll out broadband network infrastructure throughout Catalonia and make it available to all carrier resellers at reasonable wholesale rates. This pragmatic solution was supported by all of the elected Catalan political parties (Ferran Grau 2005); (Catalunya 2005).

In September 2004 the Xunta de Galicia announced its own plan to expand broadband access across the rural areas of Galicia; a plan starting with the evaluation of the demand and analysis of all available options for its implementation (Xunta 2004). In this respect the plan lagged behind contemporary initiatives by regional governments in Catalonia, Navarre, La Rioja and Euskadi, all of which had by then advanced towards co-investment in rural broadband infrastructure (Gerrand 2006). The Galician initiative was clearly designed to be eligible for EU funding in 2005 via the EU’s E-Europe 2005 project and the Spanish Government’s Españ project, both aimed at rolling out universal broadband coverage, to improve citizens’ access to the Information Society.

In November 2006 the Spanish Government announced a new Law on Measures to Stimulate the Information Society, including a commitment to the rollout of broadband Internet coverage of the entire population by December 2007 (Vanguardia 2006).  This commitment, which is well in advance of any similar policy commitment by the Australian Government, should assist Spain’s citizens to participate in the global Information Society in all their languages.

Then there is the need to have the common human-computer interfaces and applications available in the target language.

In the mid–1990s the Catalan government paid Microsoft close to US$500,000 to fund the development of a Catalan interface to the Windows 98 operating system, even though this interface was not bundled with the standard Windows suite, and arrived late to market (Vanguardia 2005). In 2002 the Catalan government joined with the Andorran and Balearic Islands governments to pay Yahoo to provide a Catalan interface to its portal, for a cost of €600,000. This has apparently not met the sponsors’ expectations (La Vanguardia, 2005). Nevertheless Catalan is the only regional minority language in Europe to be separately indexed in the language preferences of the major international search engines, Google and Yahoo, a consequence of strategic lobbying and investment by the Generalitat.

The special or accented characters in Galician (beyond the standard Roman characters) are the same as those in Spanish (ñ, á, é, í, ó, ú, ü) except that Galician also uses the cedilla (ç) in some archaic words and in some foreign words imported from French or Catalan, etc.  As with other European languages, special characters and accents beyond plain Roman letters tend to be avoided when implementing domain names, because many web browsers cannot handle them. When the new Internationalized Domain Name (IDN) software becomes implemented much more widely, and web browsers become compatible with them, there should be fewer restrictions on using special characters in top level or second level domain names.

Implications for other minority languages

There are reportedly more than 6,800 human languages and dialects in use today (Gordon 2005), each one providing both a means of communication and a sense of cultural identity, including a distinct historical context, for its speakers. But of course the numbers of speakers of these languages varies hugely. Only 122 of these languages have more than one million speakers, 83 more than five million, and only 60 with more than 10 million speakers (puntCAT 2004).

Most of the 100 most spoken languages are also extensively read and written, providing access to distinct literatures, histories and other cultural resources, as well as providing (for the more fortunate readers, writers and speakers) the ability to participate in relevant economic, administrative, religious and judicial systems, as well as within relevant communities.

The Internet is serving as a cost–effective means of communication by e–mail or blogging in any of these languages, given the power of the underlying Unicode standard to encode, store and transfer all the characters used in all the known languages of the world. However the visibility on the Internet of many of the ‘top 100 living languages’, and the cultural diversity they manifest, is not obvious to the average Anglophone (or Hispanic) Internet user. To what extent are these languages used on public web sites?

Measuring the usage of human languages on the Internet is a very inexact science, but Table 2 (in Appendix A) shows the relative proportions of 45 languages identified on web sites by the search engine AllTheWeb, measured independently in March 2002 by Guinovart (Guinovart 2003) and in August 2003 by Mas i Hernàndez (Mas i Hernàndez 2003). Regrettably the current Google and AllTheWeb search engines only offer up to 36 language choices, which makes it impossible to repeat the experiment to get more up–to–date snapshots of the Web in the same languages. However Appendix A shows that Guinovart’s measurements are in close agreement with those of Mas i Hernàndez, carried out 17 months later, using the same search engine. These show Galician to have been between the 37th and 39th most popular language on all the web pages crawled by AllTheWeb.

At the time of writing, no other, more recent results have been published on the proportion or ranking of minority languages such as Basque, Catalan or Galician on the Internet.

The minority languages of Spain

The characteristics and geographic distributions of the autochthonous minority languages of Spain (and of all Europe) are well described in the Catalan Diccionari de les Llengües d’Europa (Badia 2002), yet to be translated into English.  Their English names and native-speaker population estimates are shown within Table 1. Here the unsourced estimates from the Diccionari are compared with sourced estimates in Ethnologue (Gordon 2005).

Table 1. Estimated native speakers (‘000) of distinct languages in Spain


Diccionari Llengües d’Europa 2002

Ethnologue 2005

ISO code

Language or dialect (as first language)

Lower estimate

Upper estimate



spa Spanish





cat Catalan





glg Galician





eus Basque





ext Extremaduran (ehtremeñu)

Treated as dialect of Spanish



ssp Spanish sign language



ast Asturiano-Leonés (bable)




rmr Caló



csc Catalan sign language




arg Aragonese (fabla)





fax Fala



por Portuguese



gsc Aranese/Gascon/Occitan





quq Quinqui


Total: (‘000)





The 102,000 Spanish sign language users and the 18,000 Catalan sign language users in 1994, meticulously recorded in Ethnologue, can be considered to be additional first-language Spanish and Catalan users respectively when using the Internet.

Ethnologue also records the existence of the oral languages of two highly marginalised groups in Spanish society: caló is spoken by an estimated 40,000 Iberian gypsies in Spain – but by 76,600 in all countries (1995); and quinqui is spoken by the eponymous group, of unknown numbers, who are believed to be the descendants of itinerant tinsmiths (Gordon 2005: 560).

The author has been unable to find recent statistics on the populations of autochthonous speakers of Arabic and Berber languages in Spain’s autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla on the Mediterranean coast of Africa, although Wikipedia (2007) asserts that 30% of Melilla’s population is Berber-speaking.

Would .gal meet ICANN’s criteria?

How would a .gal domain for Galician language and culture rate against ICANN’s individual criteria for a new sponsored TLD?

The proponents can satisfy ICANN’s fundamental criteria of technical and financial stability of the registry by following the example of .cat, i.e. make use of an existing ICANN-approved technical registration platform, and closely following the financial model of an ICANN-approved TLD, such as .cat,  with proven performance in the market.  The application would also wisely follow ICANN’s best practice for prior registration of the names of relevant cultural organizations, i.e. a ‘sunrise period’ prior to opening registration for all other applicants.

ICANN’s key criterion of useful purpose is in fact met by an English translation of the Objectives of PuntoGal, taken from its website :

– Que baixo o dominio .gal se poidan rexistrar dominios daquelas entidades, empresas ou persoas que se expresen en lingua galego e/ou o fomento da cultura galega.[Under the .gal domain one will be able to register domain names for whichever organizations, businesses or individuals wish to express themselves in the Galician language and/or promote Galician culture.]

– Contribuír ao proceso de normalización lingüística. [Contribute to the process of the standardisation of the Galician language]

The latter objective refers to the desire to promote the most recent new norms for the spelling and morphology of the Galician language, as published in 2004 by the Royal Galician Academy and the Institute for the Galician Language.

ICANN’s requirements for scale and global reach can be amply met by reference to Galicia’s 3.2 million native speakers worldwide (Gordon 2005: 560), a population with a high literacy rate – ie quite capable of reading and writing their language on the Internet. Beyond the estimated 2.5 million speakers of galego in Spain, there are an estimated further 500,000 speakers spread over the Americas (with large concentrations in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Caracas and Mexico City), and a further estimated speakers in the rest of Europe, especially in Germany, Switzerland, France and the UK. There are even a few thousand Galician emigrants in Australia and New Zealand.

This diaspora of Galician emigrants occurred in two large waves: an estimated 500,000 Galicians emigrated to the Americas between 1860 and 1936, while many emigrated to Argentina and Venezuela in the 1950s and then as Gastarbeiten in the 1960s and 1970s to the more industrialized countries of Western Europe   (Xunta 2004: 44). What is striking is the extent to which the Galician emigrants set up social clubs, Centros Gallegos, wherever they settled in any significant numbers. Starting from the 1880s in Latin America, the Centros Gallegos rapidly became centres for the provision of social welfare as well as entertainment and companionship for their members. Some became major economic forces, particularly those in Havana (prior to the Castro era) and Buenos Aires, providing substantial employment to their compatriots in restaurants, publishing houses and other enterprises. Dr Manuel González, Secretary of the Real Academia Galega [Royal Galician Academy], estimates that there are over one thousand Centros Gallegos around the world, serving to keep alive the Galician language and culture (González 2006).

As further evidence of the language’s global reach, two independent academic studies have shown Galician to be between the 37th and 39th most widely used language on the Internet (Mas i Hernàndez 2003); (Guinovart 2003). Their results are compared in Appendix A of this paper.

PuntoGal satisfies ICANN’s requirement as the sponsoring organization to be not-for-profit. Just as importantly, it is structured to be representative of its potential membership, having signed up an initial 39 cultural organizations to be affiliates. Its foundation member is the Real Academia Galega, prime authority for the Galician language.

If PuntoGal can extend its current membership to explicitly include most of the Centros Gallegos and university-based Galician teaching and research centres around the world, it will have a very strong case to present to ICANN in its next round of applications for a new Top Level Domain


The desire for international recognition (with the visibility and prestige that normally flow from such recognition) is clearly the key factor motivating minority language nationalists bidding for new Top Level Domains, such as .cat, .gal, .bzh, .cym and .sco.

The .cat decision in 2005 demonstrated ICANN’s integrity in accepting a strong application that met its criteria, even if fell largely outside the           e-commerce sphere that had become ICANN’s major focus. Any concerns that ICANN staff and directors might have felt at the time, that they were creating a risky or controversial precedent, have hopefully been mitigated by the success of .cat in the market, and the disinclination of the current Spanish government to interpret the use of .cat as any sign of political separatism.

As an indication of market success, by February 2007 there were close to 3 million web pages implemented using 21,000 domain names within the .cat domain, with a significant number of web sites implemented by organizations outside Catalonia. Concerning lack of political controversy, the current Spanish Government not only supported the .cat application to ICANN in 2004 and 2005, it has also consistently supported Spain’s regional co-official languages in the European Union. One would expect the Spanish Government to be entirely comfortable in supporting an application to ICANN for .gal.

The Galician language’s sizable population base, with more than 3 million first-language speakers, and its extensive international reach, thanks to the diaspora of Galician emigrants over the past 150 years, should satisfy ICANN’s criteria of global scale and reach.  There is no obvious reason why a formal application for .gal, well crafted to ensure strong compatibility with ICANN’s selection criteria, should not be successful in ICANN’s next round of applications for Top Level Domains. â–¡

[Written in February 2007;  published in Defeating the Tyranny of Distance. Historical and Cultural Relations Between Australia and Galicia, Lorenzo Modia, M.J. and Boland, Roy C. (Eds). 2009. ISBN 0-9775868-1-2. La Coruña: Antípodas. pp. 189-212. ]



[1] The International Corporation for Addresses, Names and Numbers, whose birth and functions are explained in this paper.

[2] The home of software giants Verisign and Microsft respectively.

Is broadband now essential to sustain the environment?

(TJA Editorial, February 2009)

On 29 January 2009, more than 90 doughty individuals braved the 43C Melbourne heat to attend the Awards Ceremony for the award of the 2008 Eckermann-TJA Prize, sponsored by Alcatel–Lucent as the 2008 Alcatel–Lucent Broadband Challenge for the Sustainable Environment.
In this second year of our now annual competition, nine papers were received by the Judging Panel from authors based in four countries: Australia, Ireland, the UK and the USA. The best eight papers are published in this issue of TJA. It is truly impressive to see the range of application areas covered by these papers where broadband can help save the environment:
• Improving the water efficiency in irrigation from the current level, typically less than 50%, by up to 74%;
• Reducing the energy consumption in mobile telecommunications networks by up to 70% in urban areas;
• The use of a Smart Grid for national electricity distribution, to reduce Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions by up to 9%;
• Reducing greenhouse emissions by the use of grid-charged electrically powered passenger vehicles;
• The urban application of personal rapid transport systems;
• Reduction of the carbon footprint of the Internet;
• Applying broadband to the creation of a more greenhouse efficient national electricity market.
• ‘Carbon-centric computing’: the application of ICT itself, including broadband, to more carbon-efficient ICT infrastructure
The Judging Panel decided that three of the entries were of sufficient merit to deserve to share the $10,000 2008 Eckermann-TJA Prize.
Read more here.

The worldwide diaspora of Spain’s regional communities: its reach, its history and its modern relevance

CERC Working Paper 3/2008, December 2008:

Author: Dr Peter Gerrand, Honorary Research Fellow, CERC.

Word length: 14,007. One Figure (B&W photograph) and four Tables included.

This paper surveys the geographical distribution of the Spanish diaspora, using as the data base the more than 1,000 emigrant centres registered with Spain’s governments. The names of the centres, created as grass-roots initiatives since the 1840s by groups of Spanish emigrants, reflect the prime identification of the emigrants with their ethnic home region rather than with their Spanish nationality. The historical evidence for the chosen destinations of the emigrants from different regions of Spain in different periods, extracted from a range of secondary sources, is found to be consistent with the locations of the surviving centres, populated by their descendants.

Moving to the post-Franco era, the initiatives taken by the regional governments of Spain to build enduring links with their diasporas are surveyed, including their emphasis on ‘extra-territorial’ ethnic identity via legislation, the organization of international conferences for their global ‘collectivities’ and the annual celebration of international days. The crucial supporting role of the Catalan diaspora in the successful bid for the .cat top level Internet domain is noted; an example not lost on the Galicians seeking a .gal and the Basques seeking a .eus to raise the online visibility of their languages and cultures.

Read the complete online paper here.

Linguistic diversity on the internet


Both UNESCO and OECD have recognized the public policy benefit of publicizing information on linguistic diversity on the Internet. However, the published methodologies for estimating “linguistic diversity” or “Internet statistics (by language)” do so with different interpretations of these key terms. This article creates a new taxonomy, defining and contrasting user activity, user profile, web presence, and diversity index to distinguish among the various indicators used to estimate language usage on the Internet. This taxonomy facilitates comparisons of the available methodologies, whose limitations are then critiqued. It also helps to resolve the apparent paradox as to whether the use of English on the Internet has declined rapidly or has remained fairly stable. The study concludes that the best estimates of web presence can be achieved by direct measurement: randomly addressing and analyzing a representative sample of all public websites. However, this approach will only suffice if the language detection software used is progressively extended to recognize all the world’s written languages.Read the paper here

Postscript to TJA paper on Telstra restructure

This paper stimulated more ‘letters to the Editor’ than any other paper in the then 70 years of TJA. The following issue (TJA V54 N4, pp. 53-60) contained detailed responses from John Costa (disagreeing), Robin Eckermann (agreeing), John de Ridder (neutral), and Jim Davidson (supportive, with an alternative suggestion for raising funds for infrastructure investment).

In the national media, the paper was republished on the Henry Thornton website in November 2004, where it received an endorsement from Paul Budde. Alan Kohler gave it an honourable mention in his column in The Age. In the week in which the original TJA paper was distributed, both the Chairman of the Productivity Commission and former regulator Professor Alan Fels independently came out with statements supporting the need for structural separation of Telstra. Later, in 2005, in the lead-up to the new T3 legislation, a consortium of most of Telstra’s competitors all called for the same solution.

But the Federal Government ignored all such informed advice and went ahead in 2005 with legislation to enable it to sell its 51% share in the dominant Australian carrier, without any regulatory changes addressing the fundamental issues of (1) the lack of a balanced playing field for retail competition in broadband, and (2) the lack of incentives for ongoing infrastructure investment in a truly national rollout of broadband access, apart from an inadequately dimensioned Connect Australia fund..

Two years later, driven by the exigencies of a Federal election year, the Federal Government is cobbling together a hybrid solution of a subsidised WiMax infrastructure rollout in parts of regional Australia (by the ‘Opel’ consortium of Optus and Elders) and a subsidised rollout of Fibre To The Node broadband to the cities, to be awarded by competitive tender to the Commonwealth. The interconnect arrangements with Telstra, including wholesale pricing, seem not to have been decided in advance, which is ominous. – PG