Hitting The Brakes On The Data Highway

On the campaign trail, Bill Clinton and Al Gore had a glowing vision of the electronic future. The high-tech pols saw a "data superhighway" that would be everything for everyone. Business could send data zipping among scattered offices, schoolkids could tap into the Library of Congress, researchers could exchange high-resolution images, and couch potatoes could order entertainment on demand.

Now reality has set in. The Administration sees that vast and powerful networks have already been built by universities, corporations, and federal agencies--and that attached to this complex system is a web of entrenched interests. Says Michael M. Roberts, vice-president for networking at Educom, an alliance of universities: "Clinton and Gore now realize that their expectations were totally out of control."

So on Sept. 15, the White House took the logical step. In unveiling an agenda for building a "national information infrastructure," it set up a task force to study the thorny issues. The panel's charge includes figuring out who can send what down the "highway," how it should be paid for, and how security and privacy can be assured.

NET SPREAD. In the meantime, the Administration is supporting pilot projects, such as those funded by legislation sponsored by Representative Rick Boucher (D-Va.). The Boucher bill, which likely will be enacted this year, would demonstrate use of advanced data networks in fields from health care to education.

Sorting out the conflicting interests of business, academe, and households--and of local phone companies, long-distance providers, and cable operators--will be a major challenge for the task force. In recent years, while politicians weren't watching, information networks have spread like wild vines. Government got the process rolling in the 1970s, when the Pentagon and National Science Foundation sponsored modest data nets for academics and contractors. These have grown into the Internet, an international network used by more than a million researchers--and thousands of companies. "It's a perfect example of where government did it right," says network pioneer David Farber of the University of Pennsylvania.

But corporations' growing interest in the Internet--the kernel around which the network of the future will be formed--is causing jitters among both academics and the phone companies who now provide business communications services. The Baby Bells fear competition from partly subsidized networks, which often allow users to bypass local phone companies for service such as e-mail. Researchers fret that commercial pressure will drive up the cost of what has been a very inexpensive method of communication. And the prospect that households will be able to get entertainment on demand worries cable companies, which see competition for their expensive systems. Adds former Representative Thomas J. Tauke (R-Iowa), now a vice-president of Nynex Corp.: "The technology is moving so rapidly and federal policy is so far behind the curve that we haven't begun to tackle the bigger issues."

Boucher, who says his goal is "to extend networking to the general populace," has tried to balance these interests. His bill provides funds for such advanced uses as sending X-ray images to distant doctors or beaming classes to far-flung students. He has eased the fears of both phone companies and research by barring the government from competition with commercial services.

But Boucher's legislation isn't designed to handle the toughest policy questions. The Administration's decision to hand the larger issues to a task force looks like a punt, but it may be the best way to avoid a costly mistake.

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