National information infrastructure

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At the present, the primary regulators/coordinators shaping evolution of the NII are all federal government bodies, although State public utility commissions and the Courts might become important in the future. The U.S. Congress, as the key telecommunications reformer, is the most important federal agency, but there are various Executive agencies that will coordinate what Congress eventually enacts into law. Chief among these is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC ) which will have continue to have responsibility for rule making under the new law, dispute resolution between contending parties, and licensing of the radio spectrum. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), National Institute of Standards and Technology/Computer Science Laboratory (NIST/CSL), and the Information Infrastructure Task Force (IITF), which were important in coordinating the Clinton Administration’s NII initiative will likely have diminished roles.

In short, the telecommunications law being enacted by Congress will set the new rules of the game for private sector competition in the information industries for decades, will take Congress out of the action for awhile, and will considerably reduce the role of Executive agencies other than the FCC. However, as the impacts of the new rules become felt, there will be winners and losers and one can expect that at least some of the losers will seek redress in the Courts, Statehouses, and State public utility commissions.


An emerging order in spite of no clear design might give the impression that there is some inevitable outcome of the NII evolution. This is mistaken: there are many different possible outcomes. Nevertheless, we believe that certain paths of evolution are probably foreclosed by the constraints imposed by existing technology and past institutional arrangements. Of key importance to the continued evolution of the NII is the turbulence imposed by a set of powerful driving conditions. In this section, we review these conditions and the role they play in the further evolution of the NII.

Competing Models of NII Service Provision

Of first importance is the turbulence generated by the forces unleashed by deregulation, in which the providers will compete for the users’ dollars. In this process, the providers will attempt to differentiate their services offering, or appearing to offer, different models NII service provision. Although in principle many different models could emerge, we believe that two models are most likely to provide evolutionary pathways with consistent “logics of control” over the national information infrastructure. One—the Interactive TV model—puts control at the center of large corporate conglomerates, and the other—the Internet model—devolves and distributes control throughout the system, ultimately to the end users.

The Interactive TV model projects the availability of broadband communications delivering up to 500 TV channels with interactive services such that households would no longer be apathetic viewers sprawled in front of their TV sets but active users who would seize control of the set, using it to call up films and download games, and to bank and book and buy. The networks would be owned by telecoms and media conglomerates who, as put by Gary Chapman (LA Times, November 30,1995), “would own the wires and lease their bandwidth to content providers they select and then market to consumers in “bundles”, the way cable TV, America Online, Prodigy or CompuServe works now. Their networks would not be open, and it’s likely their interactivity would be highly constrained--enough for users to send e-mail and a credit card number, but not enough to have a full-blown network that could rival their own offerings.”

The Internet model is predicated on the existence of a universal public network with sufficient bandwidth to carry video, data, voice and sound all at once. The network might be built by a private partner that gets to manage the network and collect leasing fees in exchange for its investment in the hardware. The network would be based upon public interest principles of universal service, interoperability of components and open systems, which adds up to a public infrastructure open to all users with maximum bandwidth available to everyone. Content would be provided by new entrepreneurs as well as by conventional cable TV, telephone and on-line service providers. The current Internet is a precursor of such a network, which is where the model gets its name (see earlier discussion of the Internet). The Internet is a public infrastructure based around loosely coupled and widely distributed networks of personal computers which no one really controls and which are already used interactively to work collaboratively, communicate with friends and family via email, play CD-ROMs and get into on-line services. Among current computer networks, the Internet is clearly winning with households over the constrained, bundled services of Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online. The “public” Internet has an estimated 20 million users whereas these private on-line services have a total of around 7 million users.

It is unclear whether the Interactive TV model or the Internet model will be the winner in the high bandwidth world of the next century but it is clear that the choice is between competing models that are provider versus user controlled. It is possible that a new model might be developed, that a hybrid might be synthesized, or that both models will coexist. The point here is not to debate the merits of competing models but to point out that these models will greatly determine the extent to which the original NII vision of a “seamless web” available to all citizens is realized. A significant element of the “order” of the evolving NII in the United States places construction of the NII squarely in the private sector, minimizing the government's role by removing regulations that have protected markets for different providers. In place of this old, designed order will emerge a new order of market institutions including competition in local telephone, cable and broadcast segments that should unleash private innovation and investment in the NII. Control of the resulting information infrastructure and content could evolve toward substantial industry control as seen in the Interactive TV model, or toward substantial user control as seen in the Internet model. At this point, it is not possible to see which model is favored.

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