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Agency Steps Into Telecomm Limelight : Infrastructure: Commerce Department unit leads the charge toward government spending for an information highway.


WASHINGTON — With the Clinton Administration redoubling its effort to modernize the nation's information infrastructure, a once-sleepy arm of the Commerce Department that is advising the President on the issue is suddenly rising to political prominence.

At center stage is the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a Commerce unit that evolved from the Office of Telecommunications Policy created by then-President Richard M. Nixon in 1970.

The agency put forth a proposal on Wednesday calling for a coordinated government effort to promote a new generation of communications and computer technologies that will enable Americans to shop from home, choose from hundreds of television channels and tap into data in libraries, universities and other information sources.

The report proposes that the government spend $1 billion to $2 billion yearly for "critical" improvements in telecommunications and computer technology. It calls on policy-makers to promote a "seamless" interactive communications network, ensure its security and reliability and extend the universal-service concept already embodied in telephone regulation to make sure "information resources are available to all at affordable prices."

The Administration's telecommunications offensive, sidelined for months by budget setbacks and overshadowed by the recent push for health care reform, is sure to increase the power and visibility of the NTIA, experts say. The 300-employee agency manages the airwaves utilized by the federal government, conducts scientific and engineering communications research and advises the President on telecommunications issues.

"NTIA is becoming a lot more influential," said Andy Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project, a Washington consumer group. Vice President Al Gore "is taking a direct interest" in the agency, he added.

Headed by Larry Irving, a veteran Capitol Hill lawyer who was legislative director for the late Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.) and a senior counsel to the powerful House subcommittee on telecommunications and finance, the NTIA has become the Administration's principal messenger on a number of important telecommunications issues at a time when the Federal Communications Commission is still waiting for Congress to confirm Washington antitrust lawyer Reed R. Hundt as its new chairman.

Since taking charge of the agency earlier this summer, Irving has spoken before more than a dozen groups from Washington to Caracas, Venezuela, to spread the Administration's gospel that it needs to modernize the electronic information infrastructure to create jobs and increase America's global competitiveness.

At a July gathering of the National Technical Assn. in New Orleans, for instance, Irving declared that "for the first time in memory, the White House has elevated technology, and particularly telecommunications technology, to the top of its agenda for economic development."

In Washington, the NTIA has pressed its offensive more directly.

The agency entered the politically explosive debate over personal communications services, or PCS, last week, urging the FCC in a letter to give new entrepreneurs rather than existing cellular telephone operators priority in awarding space for the new generation of portable phones. PCS is expected to become a multibillion-dollar industry.

Some industry observers who recall a much lower-profile NTIA applaud the agency's new activism.

"The President deserves to have a voice in communications," said Washington lawyer Richard E. Wiley, who served as FCC chairman from 1974 to 1977. "NTIA exists for that purpose."

But some critics say the NTIA's efforts to promote the modernization of the nation's electronic information infrastructure may be too little too late. They note that just last week, more than a dozen high-tech companies announced plans to forge ahead with their own high-speed communications network capable of carrying voice, computer data and video.

However, since the federal government controls billions of dollars in high-technology spending as well as the airwaves that will carry much of the new technology, the NTIA's strategy will have significant impact.

"Almost everything this President is doing in terms of reinventing government relates back to this vision of using technology to increase efficiency and productivity," said Irving. "For 12 years, we had an Administration that didn't care about telecommunications. But I am here to let people know what NTIA is all about. . . . And having a President and vice president who care deeply about this gives me clout and credibility."

The NTIA's muscle flexing, however, could sour its relations with the FCC, an independent federal agency that is the principal regulator of the $300-billion telecommunication industry.

"There have been periodic turf battles and policy food fights between the two agencies. . . . I would advise both of them to constantly patrol their jurisdictions to guard against jurisdictional poaching by each other and other" government agencies, said Mark S. Fowler, a Washington communications lawyer who was FCC chairman from 1981 to 1987.

However, top Administration officials have indicated that they are counting on the NTIA--not the FCC--to encourage private-industry efforts to modernize the telephone and fiber-optic networks and other parts of the nation's electronic information infrastructure.

The FCC "isn't the kind of organization one would choose to lead a major presidential initiative" such as information infrastructure, said Bowman Cutter, deputy assistant to the President for economic policy, at a White House briefing earlier this year.

Cutter added that the FCC will have its hands full "as the convergence within the telecommunications world continues and accelerates."

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