National Information Infrastructure:
Myths, Metaphors And Realities


The key issues that are essential for the implementation of the NII have been discussed in detail in the Issue Paper released by the Committee on Applications and Technology of the Information Infrastructure Task Force (1994b).

According to this report, the development of the NII has been evolving since postal services and semaphore were established. The need for a formal NII initiative was spurred by an increasing pace and scope of changes due to the convergence of various digital technologies. The private industry will be primarily responsible for creating and managing the networks, the information tools and applications, and most of the information traversing the NII. Yet, U.S. Government is a major participant by virtue of its national information policy development function. As Vice President Gore has observed, "Our goal is not to design the [information] market of the future. It is to provide the principles that shape that market. And it is to provide the rules governing this difficult transition to an open market for information. We are committed in that transition to protecting the availability, affordability and diversity of information and information technology as market forces replace regulations and judicial models that are simply no longer appropriate."

Key Issues Identified

Within this perspective, IITF had identified some key issue areas that need to be addressed for the implementation of the NII. These areas have been categorized into:

People Issues, concerned with the users of the NII;

Information Issues, concerned with the commodity of the NII;

Software, hardware, and network Issues, concerned with the media of the NII; and

Finance Issues, those concerned with financing the NII.

The specific issues under each of these categories is listed below.

People issues

Providing equitable access to the NII

User acceptance of NII applications

Privacy safeguards for individuals and organizations

User training

Organizational learning

Private sector acceptance of Government-developed applications technology.

Information issues:

Intellectual property rights

Information security, including confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity

Information access, storage, and retrieval

Information and data standards

Information conversion from "old" storage to NII media.

Software, hardware, and network issues:

User friendly hardware and software that maintain accuracy and reliability of the systems

Interoperability standards that preserve the system security, accuracy, and reliability

Scalability from small pilot projects to widespread use.

Finance issues:

Cost and pricing of the applications and uses, who will pay, and how that can be economically efficient and socially beneficial

Public funding, how it will be used for development and deployment of the applications.

Discussion of the Key Issues

People issues

Providing equitable access to the NII This includes access to information as well as access through the NII to other individuals and citizen groups. For instance, health-care providers need access to health care information as well as to other health care affiliates via the NII. Teachers and students need access to the educational and library services carried on the NII. Commercial establishments and workers need equal access to opportunities for electronic commerce and telecommuting provided by the NII. Citizens must have equal access to Government services provided over the NII.

User Acceptance User acceptance will be an important issue in NII, particularly in applications areas that have not been exposed to the information technology applications so far.

User Training This issue is related to the last issue since user acceptance may, to a great extent, depend upon the capacity to train the users. Learning how to use new technologies and applications -- will require new approaches in the workplace.

Organizational Learning Organizational learning closely parallels user acceptance and training. Several application areas will see the development of new paradigms for doing the job that may involve redefinition of work and the roles of individuals doing that work. Examples include the role of students and teachers in the virtual classrooms, the role of buyers and sellers in electronic commerce, etc.

Private-Sector Acceptance of Government Technology Needs of the private sector need to be integrated in the developmental stage so that most of the NII technology developed as a result of Government-sponsored efforts could later be adopted easily. The involvement of the private industries is thus essential in planning, decision-making and developing new technologies to ensure compatibility, interoperability, and usability.

Information issues:

Intellectual Property Rights Ensuring that the creators of information works can be compensated for their work while providing for public "fair use" under the proper circumstances will be a key determinant of the quality and availability of informational goods and materials through the NII.

Information Security Given the possibility of potential threats to the security of inter-linked information systems by cyberpunks and computer criminals, this is a significant issue for gaining the confidence of the sellers as well as the buyers to conduct transactions thru the NII. Information security may be broadly classified into three areas - confidentiality, information integrity, and information authenticity. For instance, patients would not like the information in their medical records to be maliciously misused against them. Electronic commerce depends upon the viability of the electronic payment systems used on the NII. Companies using the NII for storage, transmission, dissemination or retrieval of information want adequate protection of their proprietary secrets.

Information Access, Storage, and Retrieval Flexible and timely access, of course authorized access, to all information resources on the NII is important. Users need to know what information is available, where it is, and how to get it in a timely fashion and in a useful form.

Information and Data Standards Commonly accepted standards for information and data are essential to ensure that information transmitted over NII is complete, unambiguous, and, most importantly, usable. While data standards are critical for assuring technical connectivity, information standards are necessary for companies to exchange information in a useful manner.

Conversion of Information Conversion of information stored on traditional storage media, such as books, blueprints, paper, etc., to NII electronic storage media will be essential before that information can be accessed or transmitted. Examples include digitizing of books stored in libraries, medical records and patient information stored in the hospital files.

Software, hardware, and network issues:

User-Friendly Hardware and Software These are essential for mass applications of NII, especially given the mandate to make NII useful for the general populace of the country. User-oriented hardware and software interfaces that ensure convenient access to accurate and reliable information are necessary for the acceptance of the NII.

Interoperability Standards Interoperability standards are needed to ensure secure and uncorrupted transmission of information across different networks, or varying hardware and software platforms. Adobe's Acrobat is one instance of such a standard - anyone with an Acrobat reader can read almost any document created in any format on any type of hardware. New standards need to be compatible with the existing base of installed systems as well as flexible enough to adapt to future changes and permit affordable upgradability.

Scalability Scalability would be an important issue for pilot projects developed initially as small prototypes that are later extended to widespread full-scale usage. Prototypes that are developed using skilled people and special funding should be scalable to sites with lesser resources and funds. This issue is particularly relevant for wide-spread application areas such as education, libraries, health care and manufacturing.

Finance issues:

Cost and Pricing This includes issues such as how much a new application costs, how much the user is charged for the service, and how the difference between the price and the cost is made up. Given the high initial development costs and low replication or usage costs of several information products, it will be economically efficient as well as socially beneficial to maintain low prices for applications to stimulate their use, so long as the operating costs for each new user are recovered.

Public Funding The issue of public funding is related to that of cost and pricing, since Government assistance might be required to develop technological infrastructure in some application areas (such as K-12 schools). Similarly, how other developments of public [taxpayers'] significance need to subsidized would also need to be determined.

For some application areas, some issues are more critical than for other application areas. For instance, in the health-care system in which insurance companies as well as medical researchers need to access portions of patient data, ensuring privacy of data is crucial. In the application areas of education and commerce in particular, organizational learning will be crucial because of the fundamental restructuring of work and the corresponding role modifications of the workers. Similarly, manufacturing applications, such as concurrent engineering and agile manufacturing are not feasible without the ability to exchange manufacturing information and data across activities inside and outside an organization in a timely and useful manner. Conversion of information to digital media is a very crucial issue for the nation's libraries. Although technology for doing that is widely available, yet large-scale conversion is not yet economically affordable. IITF has already done preliminary work on some of the issues, while considerable progress is yet to be made in most areas. IITF Committee on Applications of Technology has formed a Technology Policy Working Group to address the issues of interoperability and scalability. Working groups have also been formed as part of the Information Policy Committee and the Telecommunications Policy Committee to address intellectual property rights, privacy, and universal access. A working group of the Committee on Applications and Technology had been formed to address technology policy issues, and the Committee had instituted a public issues discussion program as part of its regular meetings to facilitate a dialog on the issues outlined in this discussion.

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