President Clinton is about to call for an overhaul of the nation’s communications laws and government spending of $1 billion to $2 billion a year for “critical” improvements in telecommunications and computer technology.
The Administration’s vision of the telecommunications future will be outlined in a 46-page report to be released by the White House today. A source familiar with the report disclosed some of its contents in advance.
The report calls for the government to “promote a seamless, interactive, user-driven” communications network, ensure its security and reliability and extend the “universal service” concept promoted in the regulation of telephones to make sure “information resources are available to all at affordable prices.”
“America’s destiny is linked to our information infrastructure,” the report says.
Perhaps an hour after the White House news conference on Capitol Hill, more than a dozen technology companies, including such major players as AT&T; and Hewlett-Packard, are expected to announce a consortium to push development of high-speed telecommunications networks capable of carrying voice, computer data and video.
The nearly simultaneous announcements may be a sign of the tug of war ahead. Although the Administration’s report expects the private sector to lead the way in building the information highway everyone is ostensibly counting on, industry has not been eager for an increased government role in what is widely seen as a huge new business opportunity.
The new private consortium--its official name is the National Information Infrastructure Initiative Testbed--is perhaps the most public move yet to ensure that business and not the federal government guides the actual deployment of the advanced telecommunications networks Clinton talked about in his campaign.
“This isn’t an attempt to shut government out entirely, because we do want the government as our partner,” said Dale Williams, a Sprint executive spearheading the new consortium. “But we’re afraid if government gets too involved.”
The consortium is the first of what could be several such broad alliances. The group includes computer makers such as Hewlett-Packard and Digital Equipment, long-distance carriers such as Sprint and American Telephone & Telegraph Co., and a handful of colleges and government research laboratories.
Not included--so far--are the cable companies and regional telephone companies, which are already racing each other to deliver a vastly greater array of information and entertainment to the nation’s neighborhoods.
According to Williams, the consortium’s goal is to develop business applications for existing computer and communications technology that will be fused to create prototypes of an electronic superhighway.
Physically, the consortium expects to build almost nothing. Instead it will borrow technology from its members and combine it as needed. Successful technology combinations could then be commercially packaged and sold individually by consortium members.
Initially, the group will focus on corporate clients. Later, the technology could trickle down to residential customers.
The group’s initial focus on the business customer follows the tried-and-true path that other new technology has followed over the years. However, some analysts question whether this focus will miss the important residential consumer, who as yet has little access to sophisticated telecommunications technology.
“Big business can get all the telecommunications technology it wants right now,” said Bruce Egan, an economist and fellow at the Center for Telecommunications and Information Studies at Columbia University. “It’s the little people who need access.”
Eva Waskel, an analyst with Tele-Strategies in Reston, Va., said an electronic superhighway designed for big business may not fit the needs of the residential consumer, and stressed the need for broad public access to the emerging networks.
Access--and at what price--is likely to become a key battleground as consumer and industry groups debate how much money and resources should be devoted to ensuring that everyone eventually is wired.
“Enlightened policies could harness the power of these new technologies to ameliorate many of our nation’s most critical problems by revitalizing civic institutions, expanding educational opportunities, enhancing access to health care services and improving job training,” the Center for Media Education, a Washington-based public interest group, said in a statement released Tuesday. “However, without a clear commitment to public goals, this promise will never be fulfilled.”
“I want the information highway to be connected to Harvard and Howard” universities, said Larry Irving, head of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunication and Information Administration and the Administration’s top official on telecommunications policy. “One of the highest priorities at this agency is to ensure universal access.”