National information infrastructure

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The design bias evident in the Clinton Administration's efforts has a certain irony to it. Aside from continuing the traditional government activities as patron of basic science, protector of civil society, and consumer advocate, the single most important part of the design is aimed at getting the government out of the NII design. In particular, the telecommunications reform suggested by the Clinton Administration, and pursued even more vigorously (if unevenly) by the Republican Congress, suggest that even the most ardent believers in government leadership see the NII as fundamentally a private sector affair. If so, one must ask where the coherent vision for the design will come from. As we shall show in this section, there is considerable controversy within the private sector over how the NII could and should evolve.

Government-Supported Pilot Projects and Testbeds

Various industry consortia are engaged in testbed projects involving broadband communications, interactive TV, set top boxes, video on demand, new information services, electronic newspapers, electronic services delivery, electronic business, and others aimed at proof of concept for new technologies and services. Among those that are public, nearly all are running behind schedule, some have been abandoned, and some have yet to start. Early research suggests findings similar to those conducted in the seventies with similar concepts and technologies—consumers do not feel they need the services and, for the most part, are not willing to pay what is required for them to be profitable. The notable exception—which is a government rather than an industry testbed— is the Internet, which for some is emblematic of the NII itself.

The Internet is a “network of networks” that has its roots in a defense-sponsored research project called ARPANET 93 and defense-supported researchers who were its primary intended users. The network gradually expanded to include other networks and nondefense researchers as well as many nonresearchers in academia and industry. During the early 1990's the use of networks under the Internet umbrella has grown phenomenally. As shown in Figure 1, the number of Internet Protocol (IP) host computers grew by 81% worldwide in just one year, between 1993 and 1994, and the total number of host computers was estimated at 3.2 million. Given that each host might support between one and several hundred Internet users, the actual number of users has been very difficult to determine. Current estimates range from 15 to 20 million, with estimates as high as 40,000 new users each month. However, no one agrees on the actual number, and it is doubtful that any simple and reliable measure is possible at this time given the Internet's historical lack of incentive (e.g., billing for use) to require such information. From 1991-1994, there has been growth in all the main domain categories (organizations, military, government, commerce and education), but education and commerce have grown dramatically.

[Insert Figure 1 here.]

Further growth in the education domain is expected as access is extended to K-12 levels. Commercial domain growth is also expected to accelerate. Companies such Sun Microsystems have established Internet access for all their employees—Sun claims to have 12,500 users on its network generating over 1 million transmissions per day (McNealy, 1994). An Internet address has become a new corporate status symbol, indicating one to be a member of the cyberspace elite. Even President Clinton and Vice President Gore are on the Internet ( and, although everyone knows not to expect any answers to email messages sent to those addresses.94 The Internet has galvanized much of the visionary rhetoric about the future of computer-mediated communication (Sproull and Kiesler, 1991; Pickering and King, 1995). The development of the Internet coupled with expectations of its extensions to new domains of service has given rise to the forecast seen in Figure 2, wherein network service for the general public will be routine early in the next century.

[Insert Figure 2 here.]

Private Sector Implementation

Jockeying for position in the post-deregulation market Private sector implementation of the NII has been remarkably slow. Firms in the information industries have spent more time and money jockeying for position than trying to come up with innovations that consumers might like or even to just pull fiber in the event innovative applications do develop. The purpose of all the jockeying seems to be to integrate the production (movies, TV production) and distribution (TV broadcast and radio networks, telephone networks and cable networks) capabilities of different firms in order to control large segments of the business and consumer markets. One effect of creating such massive conglomerates is to reduce choices for consumers whose preferences do not match the way providers choose to array their services. Such limited choice is already apparent in the case of on-line information services such as Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online and might characterize the new NII services as well.

On-line information services Despite much talk about the promise of video-on-demand, interactive TV, and multimedia applications, the most successful implementations to date are the on-line information services (Table 3). Although, reportedly, none of them are reportedly making any money as yet,95 there are 23 on-line service providers in the U.S. and several big telecommunications companies such as AT&T and MCI plan to enter the fray soon. Moreover, there are about 100 million personal computers in the U.S., but only about 8 million paying customers for the on-line services. Put another way, less than 10% of American households have gone on-line in the 16 years since CompuServe launched the first commercial service (Shiver, 1995). The on-line services are populated mainly by high income earners in their 20’s and 30’s. So far, the majority of Americans see no need to send electronic messages, participate in on-line discussion groups, download electronic files, or surf the Internet.

[Insert Table 3 here.]

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