National Information Infrastructure:
Myths, Metaphors And Realities


As suggested earlier, the NII has been mentioned in terms of several metaphors. To what extent does these methaphors hold? What alternative perspectives are suggested by some other metaphors? The following discussion elaborates on alternative interpretations of the NII concept.

The key principle of the NII initiative is the provision of Universal Access. The implementation of this principle may determine whether the utopian goal of the betterment of "all Americans" turns out to be a myth or a reality. The concluding discussion of this section explores this specific issue, which might be treated as the touchstone of the reality of the NII.

Although, the NII has been often described as a data superhighway, the caveats in this analogy need to be noted for the sake of avoiding misinterpretation. For example, the NII will not be built. It will evolve through the practical merging of the computer, communications, software, and information industries. While the highway system was largely developed with Government funds, the NII will be created through the traditional forces of the free market system and industrial competitiveness. This approach requires that the federal government be a partner, working with industry to transform the vision for an NII into reality (Kay, 1994). Kinney (1994) suggests that most of tomorrow's information services will evolve from the variety of new digital entertainment technologies. He argues that the new entertainment technologies would influence the shape of the emerging digital markets. Considering the significant role of technology in entertainment industry, he contends that the term NII disregards the significance of this industry. In his opinion, "national digital environment" is a better descriptor of "the sum total of U.S. digital networks, devices, data stores, etc." He suggests the ongoing transition of computers from "manipulating numbers and text" to "manipulating images and sound" portends a radical change in the nature of computing. This perspective called "entertainment, than information" suggests the leading role of entertainment technologies in driving the progress of future information services. Mekelburg (1994) suggests the significance of the "towns, communities and applications we connect to" over the highway - essentially suggesting that the more relevant question is "where you connect" rather than "how you connect."

Despite several comparisons that have been made between [especially for universal access on] the NII and the telephone service, such analogies break down on further scrutiny (Wolff, 1994):

"The Internet is different from the other communication technologies that have caused great social upheaval: telegraph and telephone, radio and television. The telephone company offers a variety of telephone-related services to its customers - but they are their services, not the customers."

The essential difference is that telephone service is defined by the telephone company and the TV's content is defined by the network. In contrast, the NII would be participative in nature - where "every client is a server." It treats its users not as consumers of a product or service, but as contributions, as colleagues.

One interpretation of the NII as a "convergence of technologies and of cultures" depicts it as an "electronic market" and an "electronic townhall" (Perritt, 1994):

"The National Information Infrastructure ("NII") -- today represented by the universally accessible telephone system, broadcast and cable television, libraries, bookstores, remotely accessible databases, and the Internet, and ultimately supplemented by broadband switched networks with digital connections to homes and public facilities -- can be an electronic market for information, and an electronic townhall."

Another interpretation of the NII considers it to be a convergence of different cultures representing different segments of users such as broadcasters, telephone companies, and Internet users (Perritt, 1994) . Three desirable attributes of a practical (rather than ideal) information infrastructure are that it 1) be capable of evolution, 2) build upon current and existing capabilities in a cost-effective manner, and 3) support the ability of the user to gain access rights to critical information through online interactive methods (Kahn, 1992). Flexible and effective evolution of the infrastructure must occur in order to support the increasing size of its user community and to dynamically add functionality as user needs grow. By building on the extant collection of systems and databases, the information infrastructure will maximize the likelihood that active users in the field will be comfortable using the resulting system.

The conclusion is that the concept of the NII is a somewhat unique concept, although there is controversy regarding its literal interpretation. It is much different than the concept of a highway, or of that of telephone service, because of the increased participation of the users in the creation or manipulation of content. The exact nature of information sought ["to inform" or "to entertain"] may vary from situation to situation, although the interaction of the user with the digital domain will be analogous in most situations. Given that some of the most renowned corporate alliances have been in areas related to entertainment, we need to consider the concept "entertainment, then education" with less skepticism. Most private companies who are investing heavily into the infrastructure of the NII are looking forward to reaping the returns. In most cases, the immediate returns will be from the entertainment-oriented applications. This argument can be supported with the current statistics on telephone and cable TV. A certain percentage of U.S. homes do not have a telephone connection, yet many of such homes have a cable TV. This might suggest that customers are more willing to spend on entertainment than on other communication needs. Although there is broad agreement over the concept of the NII, yet how the concept will be structured and deployed is not evident at present. For instance, one of the key principles is to provide universal access to everyone. Yet, we still do not know how the cable-TV and telephone companies will be dissuaded from not catering only to the rich neighborhoods to derive the fattest profits from the customers. Unless such practices could be avoided, there is possibility of increasing disparity between the "haves" and the "have nots" (Elmer-Dewitt, 1995). The endorsement of equal access implies that a broader reach would benefit everyone, but policy-makers need to pay attention to the hard facts about poverty and communications in the US today. Poor households are already spending too much on basic communication services, such as long-distance phone calls. Choosing fiber optics as the primary technology for building the superhighway will be very expensive, for both middle and lower classes. The poor may be already taking in more bandwidth than the rich, but it is in the form of low-grade information via television, rather than the high-grade information available on Internet (Huber, 1994).

Although, in 1994 consumers bought $8 billion worth of PCs - almost the same amount as spent on TVs - yet the disparities between the haves and have-nots are becoming increasingly distinct. Wealthy and upper middle-class families form the majority of the 30% of American households that have computers. Similarly, wealthier school districts have access to more and better resources. Given the increasingly significant role of information technology in the electronic democracy, the access to the information highway may determine the quality of education, the access to various information sources, and the overall quality of living. There is strong apprehension that the NII initiative might, in the longer run, increase the gap between the rich and the poor (Ratan, 1995). The concept of universal access is ill-defined for operationalization at the grass-roots level. For instance, the primary problem is not if there are enough computers to go around, but what they are used for (Hancock et al., 1995).

The following questions provide some perspective of the fuzziness of the issue of universal access:

"Does the desired notion of universal access imply a connection, a terminal, and knowledge of how to access the NII? Should the Government enforce fair access? Should providers be required to subsidize those who cannot afford it? Who determines what should be the minimum service? How can the NII be affordable and easily usable, especially for the underprivileged and disadvantaged? How can social risks be dealt with, including sexual harassment and character defamation? Should resources be devoted to ensuring that the NII address the entire spectrum of citizens and decrease the current cultural and gender gaps in technologically oriented services?..." (Simons, 1994).

Some policy-makers have suggested that the issue of access could be thought of as having three dimensions (Weingarten, 1994):

physical access to the NII: something like the "universal service" goal in telephone regulation;

access to resources and services over the NII stemming from the separation between the physical transport system and the application for which it is deployed; and

provider access: implying anyone is free to provide an information service on the NII.

But, the issue is far from resolved. The bottomline of the whole argument of the NII initiative can be summed up in the following quote by George Heilmeier, president of Bellcore:

"The greatest challenge we have to the implementation of the NII is the need to balance the incentives necessary for private investment against the need to meet urgent societal needs. This trade-off is likely to be complicated by the need for simultaneous competition and cooperation among the many firms that will invest in the NII..." (Pelton, 1994).

That will indeed be a tough challenge for the policy-making process of the present Administration. The results of this policy-making process will determine if the utopian goal of NII is a myth or a reality. Regardless of the results, the future of electronic communication in the spheres of education, business, industry and government will hardly be same as that in the past.

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