National information infrastructure

Internet versus interactive TV: Which model?

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Internet versus interactive TV: Which model?

The Japanese visions of NII are based on the notion of a single unified network serving as a pipeline for providing information and entertainment in a mostly one-way direction. The technology of choice is broadband ISDN linking content providers to households, who will choose from a menu of content choices determined by the providers. This notion is now being challenged by the rapid expansion of the Internet in Japan. The Internet was slow to catch on in Japan, partly because of the high cost of telecommunications, MPT's licensing power over Internet access providers, and government efforts to enforce Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) standards while the world was embracing TCP/IP. However, Internet is replacing multimedia as the catchword in Japan, as businesses are able to use the Internet immediately to advertise and put information on-line, rather than waiting for new infrastructure to be developed. Major newspapers such as the Asahi Shimbun are now on-line, and on-line providers such as Niftyserve will offer Internet services in 1996. It is estimated that there are 2 million Internet users in Japan now, and large companies are using Internet for PC networking.

Kumon distinguishes between the Internet model of NII, which is user controlled and allows users to send as well as receive information, and the interactive TV model which is controlled by industry and allows limited interactivity (Interview, October 24, 1995). He argues that most major players in Japan's NII debate, including MPT and the NCCs have paid almost no attention to the Internet and have no understanding of its significance. They are more interested in how to weaken NTT rather than consider the more fundamental issues of what the nature of NII should be. He argues that NTT's announcement of an Open Computer Network in July, 1995, was generally ignored by the media, but is a significant decision, as it means that B-ISDN will be almost discarded and replaced by separate networks for telephony and computers.54 The notion is that the computer network will be based economically self-supporting demand, rather than universal service, meaning that businesses in particular will have access to the high-speed digital communications that they need without having to wait for, or subsidize, universal service. According to Glocom's Izumi Aizu (Interview, October 23, 1995), there is something like a religious war within NTT's ranks between rival camps favoring the interactive TV and Internet models.

The rivalry between interactive TV and open computer networks parallels the debate in the U.S. between the Digital Audio Visual Council (DAVIC) proposal for information highways and the open data network (ODN) model. The question is whether the key applications will be primarily one-way services, such as video-on-demand, or network services such as the Internet. The rapid development of technologies such as web browsers (e.g., Netscape) and Sun’s Java technology suggests the Internet model is winning in the U.S. If Japan makes the wrong choice, it could invest billions in a NII model that actually reinforces its position as an information backwater rather than tapping into the global information revolution.


Japanese government leaders have prepared plans for the Japanese NII based on a vision of the future and a demand that does not yet exist. The desire to “catch up” is headed towards an investment of great technological prowess but of great cost and unknown consumer utility.

What role will the government play? As in any telecommunications venture, the government necessarily has a role in standards and regulation, forcing it to balance the need to encourage and incubate a new technology against the requirement to develop something in the long-term interests of society at large.

To meet its incubation role, funding of various demonstration projects that establish realistic goals and needs for NII users will probably do more to advance Japan’s NII than all the “visions” in Kasumageki55. These efforts will be motivated by very real concerns about the future of post-endaka Japanese industry. Thus encouraged, Japanese industries will build yet another generation of advanced electronics products, such as the ATM digital switches that will be required in every community that the NII visits. These products will be marketed for information infrastructures both in Japan and throughout the world.

However, Japan’s ministries will not be able to aggressively support export promotion in the way they did in the 1960s and 1970s, before the major trade friction began with the U.S. Efforts to build the Japanese information highway with only Japanese products would certainly exacerbate that friction. At the same time, Japanese producers must remained attuned to international developments and standards, so they avoid the problems of prematurely committing to one standard (as with analog HDTV) or of crafting their own unique standard which cannot be sold outside Japan (as with NEC’s PC-98 and other Japanese personal computers).

More broadly, it is questionable whether those in government with the money and power to make things happen have the vision to understand where the information revolution is heading, or whether they will make decisions based on their own institutional imperatives to protect and expand their influence. Depending on the private sector alone is risky as well, since Japan's electronics and communications giants tend to have a herd mentality and will try to promote technologies in which they have existing strengths (a trait they share with their counterparts in the U.S. and elsewhere). Unlike the U.S., however, Japan has not nurtured the entrepreneurial start-ups that have driven the information industries in new directions. The catch-up mentality can be very dangerous in a rapidly changing environment, when new technologies and standards seem to appear almost daily.

The end result is given — some form of digital communications infrastructure will exist in Japan (and other industrialized nations) — even if the technology, use, financing, ownership and schedule are not. The construction of such an infrastructure is seen as an important area of economic benefit and national pride, but its social ramifications are not yet fully appreciated. Despite three decades of discussing a shift to an information society, it appears that Japan will build its information highway without really understanding where it will lead in the end. The country is not unique in this regard, but, given the historic importance of the central government, the importance of distinguishing “vision” from reality is probably more important here than anywhere else.

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