Chemical & Engineering News,
March 27, 1995

Copyright © 1995 by the American Chemical Society.

Policy Issues Permeate Efforts To Create Information Infrastructure

Wil Lepkowski,

C&EN Washington

No two public figures are further apart in political philosophy than Vice President Al Gore and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. They probably do agree on one thing, though - that the information superhighway tops the list of technologies that are crucial to the country's social and economic future. And information-communications policy is the one superpolicy that improves the functioning of all the other technologies, such as manufacturing, environmental data gathering, and energy supply. So in the policy sense, nothing is more basic than information.

To Gore, an information technology enthusiast for two decades, the information superhighway is the road to all things great and good. "The Clinton Administration," says Gore, "is committed to the goal of connecting every classroom, every library, every hospital, and every clinic to the national and global information infrastructures by the end of this decade."

That is why Gore chose as his first vice presidential priority the establishment of the National Information Infrastructure (NII) program to tie all communications systems into a "single, seamless web." Because of its more encompassing implications, it is now sometimes referred to as the Global Information Infrastructure.

As Gore said in Brussels in February before a meeting on telecommunications: "The liberating effects of these new technologies have been clear around the world. Satellite stations brought medical advice to those tending to the suffering in Rwanda. Radio and TV broadcasts in South Africa promoted the role of voting in a democracy. Wireless technologies are allowing emerging nations to leapfrog the expensive stages of wiring a communications network. In Thailand, for example, the ratio of cellular telephone users to the population is twice that of the U.S."

Gingrich, for his part, acquired early in his career an insightful, even instinctual, understanding of electronic communication and its integration with the news media. His understanding of its power to energize a political movement propelled him to the top of the House Republican Party power structure. He is so sold on the concept of information-as-empowerment that he has proposed that everyone be given a tax credit for the purchase of a computer. More than that, Gingrich sees the information revolution as one of history's most powerful instruments of social change, and - ever watchful of threats to his vision of America - even speaks at length about present and future information "wars."

"Everywhere on the planet," Gingrich says, "we are seeing that the information age means more decentralization, more market orientation, more freedom for individuals, more opportunity for choice, more capacity to be productive without controls." He believes the Internet or its equivalent promises a "new dialogue," internationally and locally.

"What we've got to focus on," he says, "is the notion that we're going to have dialogue among ourselves. We're going to get aggregated information back in. We're going to identify the most interesting and best ideas. And they're not necessarily going to come from the people that we know personally or that fit in a social order or credentialed spectrum." Gingrich has not tried to put any of his ideas into legislation and is vague about who he means by "we." But vagueness, paradoxically, is one unfortunate hallmark of information age rhetoric.

To illustrate, here is a paragraph from "A Magna Carta for the Information Age" issued by the Progress & Freedom Foundation (PFF), a futuristic think tank with a strong conservative base founded by former Reagan Administration science adviser George A. Keyworth III. The organization is one of Gingrich's political bases in Washington, D.C.

The information age, the PFF's Magna Carta says, "spells the death of the central institutional paradigm of modern life, the bureaucratic organization. Governments, including the American government, are the last great redoubt of bureaucratic power on the face of the planet, and for them the coming change will be profound and probably traumatic." The PFF also speaks, with little detailed elaboration, of the "demassification" of decision-making in tomorrow's information democracy and invites everyone to share in the excitement.

So while the information age is long on politics, policy, and obscure verbiage, it is also long on hyphenated words. The new tools of the information superhighway, says the National Science Foundation in a report, "will enable application developers to construct complex, large-scale, network-based, user-friendly, and information-intensive applications."

All those facts and hyphenated phenomena tumble to one truth: Information communication is a policy issue that holds a special place in a government's panoply of concerns. Put in the hands of master political manipulators, information can easily become propaganda. But in more responsible hands, it becomes the prime tool for a functioning democracy.

And that, of course, is the whole point of NII, which is housed in the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA). Its purpose is to place the physical architecture of the information superhighway into a public policy context. The federal government, by law, has been given certain public responsibilities, and NII's goal is to see that the tools of the information age are applied to those functions.

National Information Infrastructure has three layers

Those who want to read up on what NII is trying to do through its various task forces can obtain two reports from the Enterprise Integration Office of the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) [(301) 975-4529, fax (301) 948-7242]. They are "The Information Infrastructure: Reaching Society's Goals," and "Putting the Information to Work." Both are issued by the Task Force on Applications & Technology.

The first report lists the social applications for information technology. They include aid for people with disabilities, supply and demand of electric power, efficient transportation systems, telecommuting, management of government at all levels, environmental information, law enforcement, and criminal justice.

The second report contains sections that describe how information technology can be better put to work in manufacturing, electronic commerce, health care, education, environmental monitoring, libraries, and government service delivery. Also handy is NII's most recent progress report, which recounts information superhighway projects in the various government agencies. The Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, is linking schools within its region. The Small Business Administration is transferring Ballistic Missile Defense Organization encryption technology to business use. The Federal Communications Commission (which auctions portions of the electromagnetic spectrum for wireless communication) continues to "ensure compatibility between cable systems and TV sets, VCRs, and similar devices."

The fascination to much of this is the politics. The new Republican majority in Congress has one vision of the information future; the Clinton-Gore Administration has another. The tension is bound to rise as the goals of NII under a Democratic Administration are played out against the "less-government-is-better" philosophy of Congress' Republican majority.

There already are clues. NTIA's budget for carrying out some of the above goals - its Telecommunications & Information Infrastructure Program - totaled $64 million for fiscal 1995. It includes matching grants for hospitals, schools, libraries, state and local governments, and various nonprofit institutions. In two recently enacted rescission packages, however, all those programs have been eliminated. Similar programs slated to be funded by other agencies face similar threats. President Clinton will probably veto those cuts.

The Gingrich school of information policy may be high on information's potential, but it is low on any federal government involvement in catalyzing its progress. That is consistent with the belief by Gingrich and PFF that the information revolution implies, even mandates, less government. Is that true? No one knows yet, but here is what one expert in the computer field has to say.

Robert E. Kahn, president of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, Reston, Va., and one of the founders of the Internet, says: "It seems uncontested that governments have a fundamental role to play in the funding of advanced research and development which can push the frontiers of technology and knowledge. It also seems clear that governments must provide the necessary oversight to ensure that the standards process is fair and equitable.

"Governments must also take responsibility for helping to resolve problems that arise where independent decision-making by multiple countries intrudes on further interworking problems. The U.S. government must provide the leadership in many dimensions, including the removal of barriers where they inhibit and can be removed; the insertion of legal, security, or regulatory mechanisms where the national interest so dictates; and the direct stimulation of public-interest sectors that require and merit government assistance," Kahn says.

Right now, the components of that Global Information Infrastructure are plodding toward Gore's goal of seamlessness through NII by its various task forces coordinated in the Commerce Department. All reports on the subject say it won't happen overnight and will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The goal is to have the television set, for example, give way to computers receiving broadband signals via satellite and onto fiber-optic cable from everywhere in the world. Interactivity, not couch potatoism, it is promised, will be the characteristic of the new age.

Gore's NII lists several categories in which information is part of public policy:

The issues are as much social as technical and are only beginning to be fleshed out through the various committees and working groups that make up NII. "While industry is beginning to build the information superhighway," says a January report on NII prepared by the General Accounting Office (GAO), "little is known about how the superhighway will be structured and what services it will provide."

But NII does wrap its charter around five main themes. The superhighway should be structured as a "meta-network" that will seamlessly link thousands of broadband digital networks. It should allow a two-way flow of information, with users being able to both receive and transmit large volumes of digital information. It should be open to all. It should ensure equal access for service and network providers. And it should ensure the security and privacy of databases and user communications and provide a high degree of interoperability and reliability. The system as a whole is a long way from that.

Topping the immediate list of public policy issues is open access to existing lines of communication - the phone and cable lines that run into homes, labs, libraries, and offices. Currently, Congress is debating legislation that would open the conduit world to more competition, allowing cable companies to compete with both telephone companies and wireless companies in carrying signals.

As communications consultant Peter Huber says, "Broadcast cable, local and long-distance telephone, wire line, wireless, and computers are technologies that are converging. They can compete in the same market, and they will, if regulators and Congress let them."

Adds author George Gilder, who is affiliated with PFF: "If we have deregulation, and five years from now we still have the regional Bell telephone companies and long-distance carriers and cable companies and broadcasters ... we will have failed desperately. This technology demands an integrated broadband network, with no such distinctions between long distance and short distance and video and voice. All these distinctions dissolve in the digital bit streams of the new era."

But before they agree to break up, the Bells also want a guaranteed share of the new carrier technologies. That is why some have tried to merge with cable companies, wireless broadcast companies, and other segments of the information superhighway. For years, mergers among carriers, networkers, and media have been the practice in the communications field, and the government's role is to see that it all proceeds in an orderly way, without monopolies.

Robert Stearns, a vice president for Houston-based Compaq Computer Corp., says: "We cannot permit the telecommunication companies to reassert a de facto monopoly power over access to the home or the equipment in the home. Nor can we allow the cable companies to act as rigid gatekeepers controlling the content or services they provide. If the conduit providers are allowed to assert monopoly control over the access to the home, or if they are directed to do so in the name of universal service, this will seriously stifle progress in the development of the infrastructure."

The information revolution is raising new issues concerning the federal government's role in research in the field. For years, the government led the way, with large Defense Department funding in computer, semiconductor, integrated circuit, and network R&D. Meanwhile, NIST was (and is) developing the myriad standards that helped computers on different desktops connect with one another. That took basic research, too. All of that research led to the vibrant industries of today.

From research on networks at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the Defense Department came ARPANet in the mid-1960s. That evolved into the NSF-net in the early '80s and finally into the Internet of today. The early '80s also saw the unfolding of the interagency High-Performance Computing & Communications Program (HPCCP) that developed high-speed networking of the most powerful computers. By the early '90s, HPCCP became the High-Performance Computer & Communications Initiative (HPCCI).

The HPCCI program has a lot of supporters throughout industry and academia. The initiative is predominantly supported by NSF ($329 million for fiscal 1995) and ARPA ($357 million). The Department of Energy and the National Aeronautics & Space Administration - Congress willing - each will spend $125 million for HPCCI projects in fiscal 1995.

HPCCI has five major components. The largest, accounting for 34% of its $1.2 billion budget, is advanced software technology and algorithms keyed to functions at speeds of a trillion operations per second. Second in funding, at 25%, is the information infrastructure and applications program, which develops the technology base for NII.

The third component of HPCCI is high-performance computing systems, which support supercomputer hardware development. Fourth is the national research and education network, which serves universities and independent and industrial laboratories. Fifth is basic research and human resources, which are designed through training programs to draw students into high-performance computing.

A hot debate over HPCCI centers on the kind of research it should be sponsoring. Should high speed and scale-up continue to be the emphasis, or should broader uses predominate? The consensus seems to be that the role of government research in the field should be to push the frontiers - as it always has done.

The information-communications industry (if it can be precisely defined) spends at least $60 billion on R&D all by itself. That money, however, is predominantly applied toward product development. So, the argument goes, high-risk basic research is still needed so that U.S. industry will remain competitive globally.

The key question for scientists and engineers, who have been at the leading edge in the use of the technologies, is how they will be involved in the policies that relate to NII's applications. Those questions are now being thought through within the NII community and the Computer/Information Committee of the White House's National Science & Technology Council.

National Information Infrastructure has many components

Official assessors of HPCCI are saying it is time to think about changing the direction of its research emphases. A study in 1993 by the Congressional Budget Office criticized HPCCI as trying to be "all things to all people." Without focus, the report said, HPCCI might "dissipate its resources without effect." But focusing on a major element might miss other important areas.

"No strategy," the report said, "will be without risk." On the one hand, federal R&D could be too near the marketplace, distorting choices and preempting private actions. On the other hand, the HPCCI programs could abandon such R&D prematurely to focus only on longer term technology, leaving this technology an orphan, and perhaps stunting the growth of the market.

Last November, GAO issued its own report on HPCCI and concluded that the program needed a "more focused management" because each agency pursued its own agenda too much. It also said better linkages with industry seemed to be needed.

And just last month, the National Academy of Sciences released its own report on the subject. Entitled "Evolving High-Performance Computing & Communication Initiative," the report gave the 40-year federal research effort a high grade for contributions it had made to industry. It called for continued federal support but suggested that the program move away from its main focus on "grand challenges" and more toward applications for schools and libraries. In other words, it said HPCCI should be more integrated with the aims of the NII and network breadth.

Any treatment of government and information is bound to be skimpy. The congressional debate over telecommunications deregulation would be a treatise in itself, bringing forth peripheral issues over economics, politics, and the overall public weal. The information-policy world is high on vision and debate but low on predictability.

One person who has followed the issues for decades is Robert Chartrand, now retired from the Congressional Research Service but active as a consultant. "Our leadership," he says, "has translated ideas into guidelines, policies, programs, and events that will serve the people. But there is also a concomitant need to orient and educate the conglomerate group that directs such information policies and programs. These are the conceptualists, program and project managers, researchers, practitioners, associated advisers, and the potpourri of users.

"We need to ask what, in fact, is the telecommunications-information infrastructure? Who defines it, since AT&T and FCC [the Federal Communications Commision] no longer uniquely do? What are reasonable roles for the various private stakeholders in the infrastructure's evolution? What should become of the government's traditional roles of regulation and various forms of infrastructure investment? On whom should the benefits arising from the new infrastructure devolve and in what proportions? Who should choose these beneficiaries? Fortunately, a national debate has begun around these questions."

The most important performance measurements for NII, Chartrand says, will not be technical but social. NII, he says, should - and will - be judged not by the speed at which bits may race to their destination to be reassembled into words and images, but by how well these technical capabilities make the nation and its citizens healthier, wealthier, and more wise."

And that issue, it would seem, would fall to the federal agencies that deliver services to the people and to Congress, which oversees those agencies. Access of information to the public should thus force more accountability on government. No one can fault that.

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