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National Information Infrastructure:
Myths, Metaphors And Realities


In a global economy that is increasingly information intensive, almost everyone agrees that an advanced information infrastructure is the key to economic growth and value creation (Egan, 1994). U.S. economy is increasingly dependent upon the capture, manipulation, transmission and consumption of information. The ongoing information revolution is expected to influence every facet of American life, be it work or leisure (Verity, 1994). Companies in all industries are using information technology to re-engineer themselves and to become globally competitive. Businesses are gearing up to be a part of today's global information economy and tomorrow's world knowledge economy. Customers of tomorrow are expected to buy knowledge-based products with more intelligence built into them. Businesses are expected to build knowledge bases that will grow and evolve organically and help managers understand existing usage trends and plan new opportunities (Seybold, 1995). The impact of the information revolution has been so significant that it has been suggested that some of the key US Government economic indicators may not reflect the reality of the information-based economy (Mandel, 1994).

Various estimates suggest that between one-half and two-third of the American workforce is employed directly or indirectly in the information sector of the economy. A recent report released by the White House underscores the "critical" role of information in the national economy (Clinton, 1993). Furthermore, the strategic and global implications of the information-based national economy are highlighted in the following extract from the Title 47 Chapter 8 of the US Code.

Telecommunications and information are vital to the public welfare, national security, and competitiveness of the United States. Rapid technological advances being made in the telecommunications and information fields make it imperative that the United States maintain effective national and international policies and programs capable of taking advantage of continued advancements. Telecommunications and information policies and recommendations advancing the strategic interests and the international competitiveness of the United States are essential aspects of the Nation's involvement in international commerce.

There is a critical need for competent and effective telecommunications and information research and analysis and national and international policy development, advice, and advocacy by the executive branch of the Federal Government. As one of the largest users of the Nation's telecommunications facilities and resources, the Federal Government must manage its radio spectrum use and other internal communications operations in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

Considering the vital role of the information and communication infrastructure, and realizing that the national telecommunications and information policy had not kept pace with the latest developments in telecommunications and computer technology, the US Administration determined that there was a need for accelerated deployment of a National Information Infrastructure (NII). The primary objective of this initiative was to facilitate development of a national policy that would encourage competition and rapid deployment of new technology. This was expected to provide a regulatory environment in which the private sector would feel encouraged to make the investments necessary to build the national information network that the country needs for competing successfully in the next century (Clinton, 1993).

Background of the NII Concept

The concept of a national data superhighway was first suggested in the initial draft of the High Performance Computing Act (HPCA) of 1991 by Al Gore, then a U.S. senator (Moeller, 1993). This legislation outlined a plan to link US supercomputing research centers together on a high-speed network and support other work into high-performance computing. The notion of building a data superhighway to stimulate the U.S. economy was expounded in the Democratic presidential campaign and later became a key component of the Democratic Administration's economic reconstruction policy.

Although, it is generally recognized that the U.S. Government was the initiator of the NII, the private industry also played an active role in this process. In the beginning of 1993 the CEOs of thirteen major U.S. computer companies lobbied for legislation that would extend the Government's existing high-performance computing and communications program, the National Research and Education Network, beyond the realm of Government and university laboratories into offices and homes across the US. These CEOs, who are members of the Computer Systems Policy Project (CSPP) proposed building a National Information Infrastructure, a broadband digital network. They further recommended that the Government develop a public information program for the NII and make Government data more accessible to the public (Anthes, 1993).

In April 1993, the House of Representatives received a proposal from Congressman Boucher to amend the 1991 HPCA. Boucher's bill (High Performance Computing and High Speed Networking Applications Act of 1993) proposed that all schools, libraries, and local government offices be joined to the Internet and also for purely local networks to be set up to link various institutions, all of which will be using the superhighway (Moeller, 1993). This legislation recognized the significance of the High Performance Computing Program (HPCP) and National Research and Education Network (NREN) established by Congress in 1991 and recommended that their scope be widened to include fields other than defense and research, such as education, libraries, government dissemination, and health care to benefit all Americans. Further, it recommended the need for a coordinated, interagency undertaking to identify and promote applications of High-Performance Computing Program which will provide large economic and social benefits to the Nation. The suggested benefits included new tools for teaching, the creation of digital libraries of electronic information, the development of standards and protocols for making the stores of Government information readily accessible by electronic means, and computer systems to improve the delivery of health care.

Within this context, Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown announced the Administration's National Information Infrastructure (NII) initiative in September 1993, establishing an agenda for a public-private partnership to construct an advanced NII. The various milestones in the development of NII are listed in Appendix 1.

The National Information Infrastructure (NII) is a phrase coined by the Government to describe the convergence of telecommunications, information technology, and the entertainment industry. The NII has also been referred to as the Information Superhighway, Infobahn, or the IWay. Much of the Information Superhighway already exists in the national communications web comprised of fiber-optic strands, coaxial cables, RF, satellites, and copper wire. Still, in terms of infrastructure, better policy, organization, and homogeneous support of the players are needed, while in terms of technology, improved access, encryption, protocols, and bandwidth are needed (Chan, 1994).

The following section provides an overview of the NII concept. Section 2 provides a discussion on the key issues relevant to the implementation of the NII. Section 3 provides a description of the various stakeholders involved in the implementation of the NII. The concluding discussion examines the alternative interpretations of the NII concept and the fundamental issues that shall determine the success or failure of this initiative.

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