IN THE CIVIC VISION of the NII, the network is seen as a non-commercial tool for education, debate and community enhancement. Instead of emphasizing the NII as largely an information service - a provider of movies, games, stock quotes, etc., with limited interactivity - proponents of a non-commercial NII would also focus on its use as a communication service. A key component of a truly civic network would be its ability to allow all users to receive, create and exchange information with ease. In other words, every user would be an electronic publisher, student, critic, and citizen.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the leaders in the fight for a communication-focused NII, calls for the creation of an open platform - that is, a network designed to support open public access. Says the EFF:
Properly constructed and administered, the information highway has enough capacity to permit passage not only for a band of channels controlled by the network operator, but also for a common carriage connection that is open to all who wish to speak, publish, and communicate on the digital information highway. For the first time, electronic media can have the diversity of information we associate only with the print media. (The EFF Open Platform Campaign: Public Policy for the Information Age)
The vision of an open platform for public debate and education is echoed by a variety of organizations, including Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, The Center for Civic Networking, The Alliance for Public Technology and The Consortium for School Networking. Moreover, recent surveys suggest that public opinion leans heavier toward the civic vision. In an October 1994 Macworld poll, 34 percent of the respondents claimed they would pay $10 or more per month for distance education services, and 50 percent expressed a high or extremely high level of interest in on-line voting. In comparison, only 14 percent would pay for on-line magazines, and eight percent for sporting events on-demand.
Though support of a non-commercial civic NII is rather strong, the implementation of such a network raises numerous important questions. First of all, there is the aforementioned issue of public access, one of the mainstays of the civic NII vision. Public access, sometimes known as public right-of-way, is a concept somewhat between public broadcasting and citizen's band (CB) radio - in other words, a certain portion of a communication medium should be reserved for the public sector. Civic groups, local governments, cultural centers, charities, and any other entity which could be considered to be non-commercial would all have the right to produce and publish information on the NII.
In principal, public access is a good thing, one of the bonuses of living in a high-tech democracy. Yet the cost and management of a public access NII raises serious concerns on how it ever could be implemented. So far, attempts by Congress to solve this problem have only made the situation even worse. One bill, sponsored by Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), called for the reservation of 20 percent of NII bandwidth for public access. The proposal was assailed from all sides for a variety of reasons. Co-opting one-fifth of the NII for public use would be tantamount to handing it over to the federal government, a prospect which is almost unanimously opposed by all those involved in the debate. Moreover, by removing 20 percent of a privately developed infrastructure, the bill would almost insure a price hike by the service providers in order to make up for the loss. Finally, the whole notion of "20 percent of the NII" is nebulous at best, for advances in technology and the growth of the telecommunication industry will cause the total bandwidth of the NII to increase at a regular pace. How does one measure something that is in constant flux?
One of the more popular solutions to covering the cost of the public portion of the NII is to create a fund which would help assist non-commercial entities get wired up and eventually produce their own content. The Universal Service Fund for schools and libraries, recently approved by the FCC, is an excellent example. Contributing to these types of funds will be the commercial service providers - in large part, the entertainment, telephone and cable industries, who would conceivably be bringing in enormous profits from their venture into the information highway. But even this idea has troubles within Congress, for charging the service providers would trickle down to the consumer in the form of higher prices - an NII tax, so to speak. So in the case of the Universal Service fund, the money collected will specifically comes from the cost of maintaining a second residental telephone line. Many proponents of the civic NII vision support such measures, whether it is called a fund or a tax, but the opposing companies and interests who stand to lose profits will continue to be wary of it.
Another question yet to be answered concerns that of the infrastructure itself: what medium should be used to wire up this network? As mentioned earlier, the telecommunication vision of the NII requires at least a basic backbone of expensive fiber optic lines, necessary to drive the audiovisual images of movies and teleconferences in real-time. Yet if we consider he services that are considered central to the civic notion of the NII - political discussion, on-line education, etc. - we see that the high-speed power of fiber may not be necessary to operate these services. Though its video transmission abilities are limited, the current information highway, the Internet, is quite capable of transmitting a variety of interactive services, including political discussion and on-line education. Every day, hundreds of thousands of users connect to a seemingly infinite selection of discussion groups, and education services such as KIDLINK and the National Geographic Kids Network are proven successes.
With this situation being the case, the Internet essentially is evolving into the Information Highway we've been talked about - or perhaps more accurately, it's serving as the transition medium. And since we can't expect to find high-priced fiber lines coming up each of our driveways anytime soon, we'll have to find a mid-range solution that offers quality multimedia access without the enormous costs. For example, one technology, there's Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN). Already used within various commercial industries, ISDN is being expanded for public use for less time and for less money than fiber, and it is capable of handling interactive video. However, the video quality is lower than broadcast standards, so on-demand services such as movies and games would be less impressive and less profitable, therefore making the network more costly to operate. The future of networking must also be considered: though fiber is expensive now, in 15 years it will be cheaper and faster, and any advances in the development of services will probably require the use of fiber. The Internet/ISDN model offers a quick and efficient answer to the civic vision of the NII, but whether it is worth it in the long run is another question entirely.
Finally, there is the troubling dilemma surrounding universal service. Universal service means that every American of every age, race, profession and social status should have the right to receive basic information and communication services at affordable rates. Not unlike the notion of "plain old telephone service," where the technology to communicate over the phone is both accessible and affordable to nearly all citizens, the NII vision of universal service would require the telecommunications industry and government to conceive of an infrastructure which would reach into every community in America, so that each household would have the option of subscribing to it. In turn, the more people there are connected to each other by way of the NII, the greater the productivity of the nation as a whole, both socially and commercially.
One might think that universal service would be a non-issue, for it seems that most everyone agrees that giving every citizen the right to get wired into the system isn't a bad idea. The IITF Agenda for Action states
The Administration is committed to developing a broad, modern concept of Universal Service - one that would emphasize giving all Americans who desire it easy, affordable access to advanced communications and information services, regardless of income, disability, or location (Agenda, pg. 8).
What is yet to be determined, though, is how and when citizens will be able to access and interact with this information, as well as what that information will be in the first place. Most decision makers agreed early on that the "off ramps" of the information highway should lead to public gathering places, such as schools, libraries, hospitals and cultural centers - the Universal Service fund approved by the FCC in May of 1997 will help subsidize these institutions when it comes to paying for connectivity. But the cost of wiring residential communities in order to offer them true universal service will be enormous - a political hot potato that has yet to be considered seriously. So for now, we find ourselves stuck with the inevitable realization that wealthier locales will have better opportunities for connectivity than the poorer ones.
The local Bell telephone companies - all leaders in information highway research and development - assert that their ability to provide universal service will be hampered by restrictions currently being considered in Congress. These restrictions, they claim, would discourage investment in long-distance informational services. Because some poorer communities will be unable to afford to develop and implement their own information services, the telephone companies charge, they will be bypassed entirely, furthering the distances between the haves and the have-nots.
Other universal services questions arise out of the plan to offer digital information services directly to the home. In the case of education, for example, groups such as Educom and the Center for Civic Networking claim that as schools become networked to the NII, students inevitably will begin to use on-line information as part of their academic studies. Many children will be lucky enough to own networked computers at home, allowing them access to these new technological tools of success. But what of the students who are unable to afford a home computer? Ideally, of course, the answer would be to subsidize poorer children so they too may own a PC, as is standard in schools run by the for-profit management group, The Edison Project. Though The Project claims that these practices will be cost-effective over time, many critics respond to this by stating that this computer hand-out policy is economically unsound and impractical - a school district which spends $5000 a year per student cannot afford to increase expenditures by as much as $2000 per student in the hopes of maintaining at-home technological equity. Even if such a program were expanded to a national scale (and thus lowering the cost of computers purchased en masse), critics charge such subsidies would be economically unsound.
This dilemma brings up an interesting issue: even if information service providers are able to offer universal rates that are affordable to all economic groups (i.e., prices comparable to existing monthly telephone or cable rates), how will less well-off families afford the technology needed to utilize it? Telephones and televisions penetrate nearly 100% of the households in America today largely because they are relatively low-cost. In comparison, a computer powerful enough to process basic two-way audio and video will most likely be unaffordable to many consumers. Can we find a way to provide at-home NII services, as numerous civic networking groups demand? Or will low-income users be forced to rely on services at the local library, and if this is the case, is this necessarily a bad thing? The desire for universal service is clear, for the benefits to Americans as individuals and as a whole would be great. How and where we access that information is another issue entirely.