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Tricky Pit Stop on Information Highway : Why public access is such a key public-policy question for America

January 23, 1994

The information revolution is hurling us into unknown economic and social challenges. The high-tech wiring of America is changing how we communicate, work and shop. Those who can afford to tap into the fast-expanding hodgepodge of communications services, E-mail and consumer electronics already enjoy the many benefits. Those who cannot are being left behind.

A widening gap between the technology haves and have-nots is not in the public interest. Closing the gap is. The Clinton Administration recognizes the need; as a result, it has made access to and affordability of the nation's emerging information superhighway a major priority in its National Information Infrastructure project. The acronym NII may soon become a familiar one.

The grand vision is to have all classrooms, libraries, hospitals and clinics in the United States connected to the NII by the year 2000. Vice President Al Gore outlined the need for "universal service" during his speech on telecommunications earlier this month at UCLA. The Administration wants affordable access to information services for everyone. With technology increasingly defining jobs, lifestyles, entertainment and even education, those without access may be deprived of social and economic opportunities.

In principle, then, universal service is desirable, much like rural electrification and telephone service, over-the-air broadcast services and the interstate highway system. But how is universal service to be financed?

Ah, that is the tricky question, one the Administration so far has deftly sidestepped. It is indeed difficult to craft accessibility rules, especially when existing on-line information services have yet to merge into the envisioned seamless web of communications networks, computers, databases and consumer electronics that will put vast amounts of information at a user's fingertips. Complicating the process is the scramble among telephone, cable, computer and media companies to get into each other's businesses and markets.

Should government's role be one of high-tech cop in directing universal service? Should it be a federal investor, as in the electrification of rural America? Should it guarantee the private sector a rate of return in exchange for making access affordable? Or should the private sector provide universal service pro bono? These questions are arising as the Clinton Administration readies a legislative package on telecommunications. The goal is to encourage investment, promote competition and provide universal service within a flexible regulatory framework.

As the vice president aptly put it: "It is easy to see where we need to go. It's hard to see how to get there." But get there we must.

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