National information infrastructure

The Importance of the NII Movement

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The Importance of the NII Movement

The US NII movement is important domestically and internationally. The U.S. pioneered many of the important advancements in information technology during this century, and remains one of the world's leading suppliers of knowledge, products and services in this domain. Domestic political support for information and communications industries has always been strong and bi-partisan. President Bush supported the High Performance Computing and Communications program in 1991, aimed at maintaining the clear U.S. research lead in IT. The Clinton administration has undertaken to make these industries key parts of a new industrial policy aimed at global competitiveness (Clinton and Gore, 1993; Gore, 1993; IITF, 1993; Council on Competitiveness, 1993). The Republican Congress elected in 1994 has cut funding for some of Clinton's industrial policy agenda, but has moved ahead on broad-based deregulation of the telecommunications industry. The symbolic import of the NII could be seen in a 1995 argument between Democratic Vice President Gore and Republican House Speaker Gingrich, each claiming to be more supportive than the other of the information superhighway (Wired, 1995).

The NII movement in the United States also has generated great concern, and sometimes fear, in the international community (TCOJ, 1994; MITI, 1994; The Economist, 1994). It is felt that a decisive lead by the US in information-related industries would put competitor nations at a disadvantage. Equally important, many of these competitors would like to share in the huge investments and returns likely to arise from the NII and GII (Global Information Infrastructure) movements at the world level. The economic stakes are indeed substantial. The IITF has estimated that over the next 20-50 years in the US alone $40-100 billion of national government investment and $1-2 trillion of private investment will be poured into the key infrastructural components of the NII (IITF, 1993). Government investments are likely to occur mainly in the areas of R&D, demonstration projects, regulatory reform, NII promotion, the construction of intergovernmental networks, and the expansion of IT-supported governmental services delivery. Industry investments are likely to be spent to rewire the country with fiber optic cable, increase the capacity of existing coaxial and copper cable, upgrade switching equipment, install new equipment to provide new services, and build a large variety of privately-supplied information products and services including entertainment. From both domestic and international perspectives, the NII movement is far too important to ignore. It is not surprising that so many analysts from around the globe have focused their attention on understanding and explaining the NII movement.

The US NII movement has deep historical roots that are now shaping and will continue to shape the evolution of the NII, but at the same time, the emerging NII is a departure from the status quo. Far from finding an elegant "integrated" solution for building a "seamless" web of communications and information services, the US NII movement seems headed for considerable turbulence and confusion in the coming decade. The technologies upon which the NII are to be built are changing at a tremendous pace, with similar changes under way in the communities of research laboratories and companies that make up the technical production sector of the NII. The institutional apparatus of the FCC, NTIA and State PUCs (Public Utility Commissions) that grew up to nurture and guide the slowly evolving worlds of wireline and wireless communication has proven itself unable to deal proactively with the seemingly chaotic scramble over new technologies, products, and markets that characterize much of the NII discourse. Similarly, the authority of the standards developing organizations such as the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) and ANSI (American National Standards Institute) that once forced rationality upon the world of technical development through construction of anticipatory standards has collapsed, leaving in its place great confusion about what constitutes a standard in the age of the NII. Very problematic intellectual questions about the nature of intellectual property and the economic value of information have become central to the development of new "knowledge industries," but they have not been resolved.

An Approach to the Issues

The approach in this paper is to begin with the vision inherent in the contemporary NII movement, based on key signifying documents from authoritative individuals, agencies, and committees. In particular, it will focus on the mobilizing vision that articulates why the NII is important. There is widespread agreement that the vision is important. But when we examine the designs argued for achieving the vision, we discover that there are great differences among the communities who share the broad NII vision. As we shall see, there are multiple, competing visions for the NII, representing multiple interests in a highly pluralistic discussion. In such circumstances, a single vision and a single policy for pursuing that vision cannot be forged. That does not mean, however, that the NII movement is without form or direction. There is considerable order to what is evolving within the NII rubric, and this is captured in what we call "order without design." This order is provided mainly through the path dependencies of existing technological regimes, which shape the emerging regimes in powerful but not always predictable ways, as well as through the rough-and-tumble processes of the institution of the market, which quickly reward and punish innovations with success and failure. From this discussion we turn to the near future of NII development in an era of turbulence, devolution, and evolution. We conclude with a set of suggestions for institutional leaders in forming strategies for future development of the NII.


The NII movement in the U.S. has developed against a background of powerful forces and perceptions. Three in particular are crucial to this development: the forces of new technology, competition in high technology industries, and most important, the shift to an information economy.

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