These 'Highways' Are Wide, Underused : Communications:Vast electronic networks are in place and working. But data-handling techniques lag.

Daniel Brenner is director of the Communications Law Program at UCLA

Ignore the creaking of America's Rust Belt, the thud of her frost-bitten Florida oranges, the din of stalled freeway traffic. Don't despair over our crumbling infrastructure.

There is a hidden infrastructure that is building steadily: our public and private telephone networks.

The giant AT&T; is a vast, growing resource ready to add to our nation's wealth. And its smaller rivals, mainly MCI and US Sprint, have developed electronic long-distance communications routes that parallel AT&T;'s "highways" in much of the country.

When AT&T; went on the fritz one day last month, calls could have been handled by the other carriers if a transfer mechanism had been in place.

It has been estimated that today's long-distance line capacity is four times that of eight years ago. Another way to view this hidden infrastructure: AT&T;, with about 70% of interstate long-distance revenues, controls only about 40% of the nation's long-distance capacity.

Unlike companies that simply buy circuits in bulk from AT&T; and resell them MCI, Sprint and others are building their own facilities. They are creating 16- and 32-lane communications "highways" where only four existed before.

Thousands of miles of private networks are also being created, such as those owned by Boeing and Westinghouse. And there are networks that duplicate those of local phone companies. These networks expedite data from private firms or access long-distance companies cheaply.

In short, we have the capacity to transmit communications many times over what we use. This huge, under-utilized system can carry voice, data and fax transmissions--in fact, anything but regular television pictures--from anywhere to anywhere. Most important, it may provide a workable fuse to ignite the much anticipated information revolution in computing and communications.

The gunpowder has been in place for awhile. That is, of course, the computer power behind information processing. Take microchips. Today the most sophisticated chips have 2 million electronic components. By the year 2000, they're expected to have 1 billion, 500 times the power at the same cost.

But the communications end of the process--moving data around quickly--is the holdup. Like a donkey transporting uranium, communications developments have not kept pace with computing.

As consumers, we experience this when we have to wait longer than we care to for bank-card machines to respond. The computation takes only a fraction of the time spent on the transaction. The time thief is the messenger, not the message.

Multiply the small delays by the billions of information transactions made daily, and it's even more evident that we need to have communications networks move faster. That is the policy challenge of our communications network: Can our under-used capacity bring the transmission end of information processing up to our ever-accelerating computing capacity?

At the very least, the networks, which are now under-used, should be encouraged to carry more traffic. How? Lower long-distance rates will encourage more long-distance calling. This is already being done to some degree. Since 1987, AT&T;'s rates have declined nearly 30%, and MCI and Sprint have kept pace. Americans are making more toll calls than ever because of lower rates.

We need to look at communications as an alternative to transportation. For example, an upsurge in the use of computer modems, which allow computers to talk to each other over phone lines, could reduce the need to transport documents.

Even the ubiquitous fax machine can be replaced with data signals from a computer. Need a hard copy? Send the data, in seconds, then print it out on your machine instead of tying up the phone line with a fax transmission.

We can encourage "telecommuting," in which employees work at home using a computer connected to the office. There is a turn-of-the-century irony in seeing a worker stalled in rush-hour traffic while unused cable that could make the trip unnecessary sits under clogged roads.

Finally, and most difficult, we must find a way to make our under-used national communications resource and our computer power work together.

Perhaps harvesting all the benefits of our communications infrastructure is too big a job. Like desalinizing ocean water, it's a good idea that may prove too difficult to realize. But unlike sea water, man created communications networks. We ought to be able to find a way to direct them to their most productive ends.

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