WASHINGTON — Once again, Judge Harold Greene is poring over reams of technical data and conflicting advice to make decisions that will shape a multibillion-dollar sector of the American telecommunications system.
His subject of scrutiny this time is "information services," an industry term that covers just about every use for a telephone network beyond ordinary conversations: the electronic transfer of data and graphics; shopping, banking and library browsing by means of the home computer; electronic mail; recording and automatic transmission of voice messages, and simultaneous translation of the electronic languages in which computers talk to one another.
Such services are already available in varied forms in the United States. But now the federal judge is devising details on how to open the door to the business a bit for the seven titans of the telephone industry, the regional operating companies that were born of the 1984 breakup of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. They own most of the country's local networks.
His key idea is to let them operate "gateways," electronic points of entry through which users in home and offices would, with a single local call, be able to reach any service in the country easily and freely.
The regional companies are pressing Greene to go far beyond that, allowing them to operate a recorded voice system. Millions of American homes and business now have answering machines, but technology exists to build the same capability into the networks themselves. Using a touch-tone phones, a person stepping out would punch in a command to the network to intercept incoming calls with a recorded greeting from the person, take messages and play the messages back when the person returned.
Concern Over Monopoly
Other applications are possible for voice. An executive trying to reach a busy number could dictate a message to the network and instruct it to deliver it to the number when it was finally free. Or a Cub Scout leader might record a message about where the weekend picnic was going to be and order it forwarded to the phones of each of the 10 members of the den. Or a deep sleeper could request an automated wake-up call. Services like these are already available over the network in some foreign countries, including Japan.
The information business is now totally closed to the regional companies, with the exception of passive transmission of other people's data over their lines. The logic is that if they could provide data, they would have an incentive to try to monopolize the business because they own the local phone lines over which it must pass. The ban is part of the consent decree that broke up AT&T and is supervised by Greene, a judge at U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Addressing delegates at an international telecommunications conference in Switzerland in October, Greene explained why he had decided to loosen the reins: "I believe that the American people can derive great benefits from modern, varied services of this type," he said. "And I hope that this action will provide the impetus for a broad advance in this field."
It is a key element to the information age, the much-heralded era when everyone will have a computer that can link up with any other in the country, or even the world, to draw out or put in all manner of things. Futurologists brim with predictions for heady social and economic changes this could wreak: fewer commuters on the highways as more people work at home; better education due to students' instant access to the best libraries in the world; a progressive withering away of paper mail and newspapers; a shift of retailing from shops to the computer screen.
Few Subscribers Now
Home hardware has indeed been proliferating at a rapid pace, with an estimated 25 million personal computers scattered across the country. There is a wide variety of information services available, by which users send electronic mail to each other and get stock quotes, video games, advanced computer software, health tips and myriad other services.
But usage is still considered small--perhaps only a one-eighth of the country's computers are involved and just one-hundredth of its households. CompuServe Corp., the largest of the U.S. data service firms, has only about 375,000 subscribers.
Is this due to lack of demand, as some consumer groups say, or to the divestiture agreement restraining the industry's natural development, as the regional companies contend? To a degree, Greene has come to agree that the problem lies with the decree.
The way things now work, users must subscribe to services separately, submitting credit information. Bills are paid one by one. Users must hang up and redial to get from one service to another. For people who live outside the country's major cities, getting into a system at all may involve the extra charge of long-distance calls.