Intelligence

[CRS Issue Brief for Congress]

95051: The National Information Infrastructure: The Federal Role

Updated December 24, 1996

Glenn J. McLoughlin
Science Policy Research Division

CONTENTS

SUMMARY

MOST RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS

The NII in the Information Age
Computing, Information, and Communications (CIC) R&D Program
Administration Initiatives
Clinton Administration Policies: An Overview
NII Reports
The GII
Initiatives in the 104th Congress
Telecommunications Deregulation
Information Infrastructure Grants Program: FY1997
Issues Related to the Federal Role
The NII and Applications

LEGISLATION

FOR ADDITIONAL READING


SUMMARY

The Clinton Administration has made development of a National Information Infrastructure (NII) a key part of its policy agendas in the areas of high technology, economic development, health care, and education. Its broad vision is to interconnect industry, government, research, education, and each home with advanced telecommunications networks and information resources. A task force of sub-cabinet officials has been charged with articulating regulatory, information, and application policies intended to accelerate development of the NII, and a range of strategies is being pursued. What makes the NII important is not the technology per se, but its application to social needs and economic development.

Policymakers in the 105th Congress will likely continue to take the approach of policymakers in the 104th Congress, questioning the role of the federal government and development of the NII. In 1993 and 1994 the NII and the Global Information Infrastructure (GII) policy debate was set by the Clinton Administration, particularly by Vice President Gore. However, many policymakers in 105th Congress may contend that continued support of both the NII and GII are at odds with their attempts to reduce the size and scope of a wide range of federal technology programs. Federal budgets passed by Congress for FY1996 and FY1997 reflect this position. Support for the NII is premised on the belief that it will promote the development of commercially viable services, improve the competitive advantage of the United States, and serve the public interest. The current federal debate lies in determining what strategies will best achieve these goals. The question of the government's role raises a general policy issue of how and to what extent government should generally involve itself in support for high technology research projects and commercialization of technology. The debate revolves around the extent to which NII development should be left to the private sector; what tangible benefits will accrue to American workers and consumers; and how much government involvement is needed to boost U.S. industry, create jobs, and ensure a leading edge in world markets.

The 104th Congress passed legislation providing FY1997 funding for NII-related programs below FY1996 levels. Yet the Clinton Administration has announced additional support for information infrastructure programs, called by some "Internet II." Finally, the High Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) program has been reorganized. This federal interagency computing and communications initiative is now named the Computing, Information, and Communications (CIC) R&D program, and is run by an interagency subcommittee of the same name. This new name is intended to reflect changing program directions and R&D emphasis for computing and communications in the federal government.


MOST RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

The Clinton Administration continues advocating strong federal support for information infrastructure programs. For FY1997, the Administration proposed increases in the newly-renamed Computing, Information, and Communications (CIC) R&D program, (formerly the HPCC Initiative), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA's) information infrastructure grants program, and funding of an education grants program to support linking schools, libraries and other institutions. The 104th Congress passed a funding bill for the Department of Commerce (H.R. 3610) which includes most (but not all) funding for NII-related activities for FY1997. This was signed into law by President Clinton on September 30, 1996. Funding for NII-related programs, while not at the levels recommended by the Clinton Administration, are higher than levels considered earlier in the year by Congress.

On October 10, 1996, President Clinton proposed a $100 million plan beginning in FY1998 which expand the reach of the Internet to all Americans. In addition, he called for all schools and libraries be given Internet service for free, as well as calling for all industry leaders to raise money for school computer literacy programs, It is expected that more details of this proposal will be given when the President submits his FY1997 budget proposal, if re-elected. Some are calling this "Internet II."

Also, in November 1996, the federal High Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) program was renamed Computing, Information, and Communications (CIC) R&D. The CIC will be funded at $1.03 billion for FY1997, down from $1.043 billion in FY1996.


BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS

The NII in the Information Age

Information infrastructure consists of a physical system of telecommunications pathways and connections that transmit and receive voice, video, and data. It also includes the consumer- and business-oriented services delivered over and derived from telecommunications networks, and the information resources accessible through these networks. In its broadest sense, a National Information Infrastructure (NII) would encompass an integrated web of telecommunications, information, and computing technologies.

An information highway is a physical system of pathways and connections that consists of copper wire, fiber optic cable, coaxial cable, microwave line-of-sight signals, and satellite linkages. Individuals connect to these highways through hardware such as telephones, computers, and audio/video receivers. The United States currently possesses a basic information highway that links virtually every individual through telephone and television. An information "superhighway" would consist of broadband (high-capacity) telecommunications circuits, increasingly based on fiber optic technology, which could carry much greater amounts of digitized information, such as high-resolution video, at faster speeds.

Many parts of the public and private sectors already communicate and transfer data through computer networks connected by fiber optic cables or other high-capacity media. Currently, a variety of organizations lease dedicated telecommunications circuits to connect geographically dispersed facilities, creating private networks. A rapidly expanding worldwide system for computer-based communications (i.e., the Internet) is comprised of tens of thousands of interconnected private computer networks operated by a diverse array of government organizations, nonprofit and for-profit companies, associations, universities, school districts, and research institutions. Individuals can purchase access to the Internet through network service providers. The Internet is cited by some as a prototype of this advanced infrastructure. Others believe that diverse telecommunications services supporting high-quality telephony, video entertainment, and two-way video communications will be combined with the computer-based information transport services being pioneered on the Internet to form the NII.

In 1993, Vice President Gore articulated the Clinton Administration's vision of the how telecommunication technologies, services, and applications could be combined in a national information network. This concept was to interconnect businesses, governments, researchers, educators, and the public with advanced telecommunications networks and a diverse multitude of information resources. While perhaps not the first to introduce the idea of a national information infrastructure, Vice President Gore provided a clear initiative for policymakers to consider. Advocates of the NII concept recognize that all types of telecommunications networks, end-user equipment, and information management processes are increasingly based on computer-driven devices and technology. Communication -- whether in the form of sound, text, or pictures -- is increasingly transported within the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure in the language of computers. Sound, photographs, moving pictures, and text can all be reduced to digital signals, which can be sent through various types of telecommunications circuits. Communications and information services that used to be handled by separate companies with differing technologies can now be handled by a single high-capacity network consisting of a hybrid of technologies.

The NII announcement by Vice President Gore set the policy framework for the NII. The program and funding aspects of the NII are implemented through two federal programs. The first is the Computer, Information, and Communications (CIC) R&D program. The CIC is a multi-agency research and development program focused on how computing technologies and applications can further federal agencies' mission. The second is the information infrastructure grants program at the Department of Commerce. This program provides matching grants for technology development and applications intended to create a national information infrastructure. Both of these programs are discussed further and at length in this report.

However, while few deny the importance of the NII and what future applications may bring to American society -- and to the world -- not everyone shares the Administration's vision of this goal. Many Members of the 105th Congress will likely contend that the Administration's approach places too great an emphasis on federal spending and direction from Washington. While many recognize the value of connecting rural and urban areas which may not be served by the private sector, or providing some support for connecting schools, libraries, and medical centers, they would contend that the federal role should be limited and smaller than the Clinton Administration plans. The October 10, 1996 announcement by President Clinton to create an "Internet II" has similarly raised some congressional opposition to the size and scope of this program (see Administration Initiatives).

Computing, Information, and Communications (CIC) R&D Program

If the NII and related announcements by the Clinton Administration provide a national policy framework, the multi-agency federal technology program which supports a wide range of computing and communications technology development, applications and activities provides federal R&D support. Renamed in November 1996, the Computing, Information, and Communications (CIC) R&D program provides over a billion dollars in funding for federal agencies' computing and communications capabilities to achieve mission goals. This program is run by representatives from each participating agency, comprising a subcommittee on CIC R&D. This subcommittee is part of the larger Committee on Computing, Information, and Communications, which reports to the President's National Science and Technology Council.

The predecessor to the CIC R&D program was the HPCC program. The HPCC program was formally established in the late 1980s under the Bush Administration, brought together representatives of government, industry, and academia to set a research agenda and collaborate on technology development. In addition to promoting the development of advanced computers and telecommunications networks, the HPCC program supported the application of advanced technology in the investigation of "grand challenges" in science and engineering related to the interests and missions of various federal agencies. Authorization for the original HPCC program (P.L. 102-194) expires in December 1996. However the CIC R&D program will likely continue to administer its multi-agency goals and missions of the program -- which are designed to extend U.S. leadership in high performance computing and communications, disseminate the technology to speed innovation, and promote its use in industry to spur gains in productivity and competitiveness-- through separate agency appropriations.

The CIC R&D program currently has five components: (1) High End Computing and Computation (HPCC), to support innovation in hardware and software innovations; (2) Large Scale Networking (LSN), to develop innovations in networking applications and technologies; (3) High Confidence Systems (HCS), to develop security, privacy and reliability for high computing systems; (4) Human Centered Systems (HuCS), collaborative efforts in network computing to provide information from distributed repositories; Education, Training, and Human Resources (ETHR), to provide high performance computing education and training. [For more on the HPCC program, see CRS Report 95-272, The High Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) Program: An Introduction.]

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Administration Initiatives

Until the 1994 elections, the policy debate for the NII and its global counterpart, the GII, was set by the Clinton Administration, and particularly Vice President Gore. The 104th Congress closely scrutinized the federal budgetary and policy initiatives for developing the NII. It is likely that the 105th Congress will continue to address many policy issues regarding the NII. Still, the executive branch administers many of the NII-related programs, and continues to call for new initiatives and support for the NII.

Clinton Administration Policies: An Overview

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the Department of Commerce provides overarching telecommunications policy and program coordination for the federal government. The NTIA funds information infrastructure grants to a variety of industry, academic, state and local government recipients directly related to development of the NII. These include delivery of education and health care services and development of high-speed, interactive information technologies. The Clinton Administration proposed a significant increase in the NII grants program. Both the House of Representatives and the Committee on Appropriations of the Senate considered the NTIA and infrastructure grants program budget and reduced funding for both the FY1996 level and the Clinton Administration FY1997 request. (See "Initiatives in the 104th Congress").

The Clinton Administration also has focused on the issue of providing universal service for all Americans. Determined not to create classes of technology "haves and have nots," the Administration has sought to implement NII connections for the rural and urban populace which is currently not serviced by industry, and schools, libraries, and medical centers. Part of this is done through the NII's information infrastructure grants program, funded by the Department of Commerce (see Information Infrastructure Grants Program: FY1997) Part of this is done through the CIC R&D program, cited above. The Administration also has implemented legislation passed by the 104th Congress. The Telecommunications Deregulation Act of 1995 (P.L. 104-104) has several provisions addressing information technology and infrastructure (see Telecommunications Deregulation). Section 708 of the law provides for a National Education Technology Funding Corporation. In his State of the Union address, the President called for a total of $10 billion in federal funding to support this fund. A private, nonprofit corporation would administer this fund, providing development of information infrastructure technology and applications to serve elementary and secondary schools. However, where the funding for this provision would come from, and how it would be specifically administered, is still unclear.

On October 10, 1996, President Clinton called for a three-pronged approach for making the Internet more available to every American. First, he recommended an additional $100 million be spent in FY1997 for upgrading Internet connections nationwide. Second, he called for the FCC to approve at a Nov. 8, 1996 meeting, a proposal to make Internet connections free for all schools and libraries. Third, he called for U.S. industry leaders to help raise money to match government technology literacy programs at schools. It is likely that President Clinton will provide more details of this proposal in his FY1998 budget request next year.

NII Reports

The Clinton Administration has consistently supported the NII as part of its vision for high technology policy, including the rapid expansion of telecommunications-based information superhighways. The Administration believes that investment in the NII will strengthen the economic position of the United States, create jobs, and address pressing social problems. The Administration's vision statement, The National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action, released on September 15, 1993, describes the Administration's vision for NII, outlines the government's role, and establishes guiding principles and objectives.

The vision is that of a nationwide network "that enables all Americans to access information and communicate with each other using voice, data, image or video at anytime, anywhere." Although the private sector will develop and deploy the infrastructure, the Administration believes that the government should support these efforts. An ongoing interagency Information Infrastructure Task Force (IITF), chaired by the Secretary of Commerce, is (1) reviewing regulatory policy and developing the Administration's position on issues such as cross-ownership of telephone companies and cable television systems; (2) advancing information policy in areas such as intellectual property, privacy, and the dissemination of federal information; and (3) coordinating Administration efforts to promote applications of information technology in commerce, education, health, and other public interest areas. The Administration has established a private sector Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure to advise the IITF. The IITF continued to meet and consider NII-related issues through 1996.

The approach favored by the Administration is three-pronged:

  • Provide a range of policies which create the de-regulatory, competitive impetus for industry and the oversight and guidance of the federal government to move America into the Information Age of the 21st century. This is the NII policy as described in the IITF reports.
  • Support for basic research and development for high capacity computers and communications. This is the CIC R&D program.
  • Further the deployment of information and communications applications through infrastructure development. This is the Department of Commerce's information infrastructure grants program.

The GII

In March 1994, Vice President Gore gave a speech before the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Buenos Aires, Argentina at the first World Telecommunication Development Conference. There he called for the establishment of a global network of networks -- a Global Information Infrastructure (GII). Vice President Gore stated that three major developments could arise from creation of a GII: its applications could result in greater participative democracy worldwide; it may act as a key for economic growth and increased global trade among all nations and as an important element of sustainable growth for lesser developed and developing nations.

In February 1995, the IITF released its report, The Global Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Cooperation. The report recommends that the five major NII principles also be the guidelines for establishing the GII: (1) encourage private investment globally, from privatization of countries' telecommunications services to government-industry joint ventures for fostering technology development; (2) promote competition by encouraging nations to move away from telecommunications monopolies and limitation of foreign competition by liberalizing markets, removing foreign barriers among nations, and using multilateral agreements to foster technology transfer and trade; (3) provide open access to "ensure that all information service providers have access to facilities, networks, and network services" through interoperability (the ability to connect applications, services and networks); (4) create a flexible regulatory environment by encouraging flexible national telecommunications policies and regimes; and (5) ensure universal service globally, although variables such as cost, level of existing infrastructure, technological capabilities of national networks, and maintenance and service, among others, differ from country to country. The Administration's GII report also addresses security , privacy, intellectual property and applications, and recommends that national, regional, multilateral, and international organizations and regimes provide the fora for discussion and eventual agreement on these issues.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has held a series of public policy meetings over the last two years addressing GII issues. Among the various CSIS topics for these meetings (and subsequent reports) are those on public and private sector cooperation, data privacy, globalizing electronic commerce, and nationalism, regionalism, and globalism in building the GII. These reports provide a wide range of policy options regarding universal service, open access, intellectual property rights, and security and privacy issues. Policymakers may address these options when considering global telecommunications policies, even if they do not formally adopt the Clinton Administration's position on the GII.

Release of the Administration's GII report coincided with the meeting of the Group of 7, or G-7, nations in Luxembourg in February 1995. Officials from the G-7 nations met to discuss global telecommunications issues, as well as participate in a concurrent telecommunications conference in Brussels. In his keynote speech before the G-7 ministers and officials, Vice President Gore reiterated the five principles which the Administration views as critical for developing the GII. The Vice President also challenged the European nations to speed their process of liberalizing telecommunications markets -- which the European Union is attempting to accomplish by 1998. He also stated that further liberalization of the U.S. telecommunications market to foreign competition will likely be linked to efforts of other nations to reciprocate.

Members from over 140 organizations, businesses, and other interested parties took part in the telecommunications technology and policy conference in Brussels. Several projects discussed and envisioned by government, industry, academic, and other representatives and leaders included creation of global data banks for international projects, providing greater access to global networks for small and medium sized businesses for export, harmonization of global standards to connect various parts of the information superhighway, and creation of digitized libraries for global public access.

Some nations' representatives criticize the major industrial nations, including the United States, for failing to develop specific plans to implement the guiding principles of the GII. They contend that the G-7 forum does not go far enough to ensure that fundamental issues are not just discussed, but are truly addressed. Subsequent G-7 meetings at the ministerial level have addressed issues relating to telecommunications security , privacy, and market access. To date, there has been little international consensus or implementation of U.S. GII goals and objectives.

Initiatives in the 104th Congress

Many Members of the 104th Congress have demonstrated a keen interest in the convergence of information and telecommunication technologies. In a speech before the Washington Research Group in November 1994, Speaker of the House Gingrich invoked Alvin Toffler and his book "The Third Wave" as part of the Speaker's own vision of how development of information technology and infrastructure can "renew American civilization." Speaker Gingrich contended that, unshackled, the private sector can provide the technologies and services so that distance medicine, distance learning, and distance work can become common, everyday occurrences. The convergence of information and telecommunications technologies could also revolutionize the democratic process. Speaker Gingrich has recommended filing all bills, hearing and committee reports electronically, so that information may be available to everyone in the country at the same time. This would "change the entire flow of information and the entire quality of knowledge in the country, and it will change the way people will try to play games in the legislative process."

Congressional policymakers are likely to consider telecommunications issues from several perspectives: federal technology programs and budget, the convergence of telecommunications and information technologies, standards, education and training, and defining personal privacy and pornography in the information age. Telecommunications regulatory reform was a key part of the policy debate in the 104th Congress. Legislation passed by both the House and Senate would broadly deregulate long-distance and local telephone, as well as cable, services nationally [see CRS Issue Brief 95067, Telecommunications Regulatory Reform]. Many contend that as telecommunications and information technologies gradually merge and become more interactive, a deregulated U.S. telecommunications industry will provide the technologies and services integral for developing the NII.

Telecommunications Deregulation

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-104) was passed by Congress on Feb. 1 and signed into law by President Clinton on February 8, 1996. [For more on telecommunications deregulation, see CRS Issue Brief 95067, Telecommunications Regulatory Reform.] This law contains several provisions that will likely affect development of the NII. They include:

--One of the most contentious issues debated during consideration of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 is called the "cyberporn" provision. This section of the law calls for originators of pornographic, obscene, lewd or indecent material transmitted through computer networks to be held liable for federal criminal activities. Companies or institutions that unknowingly carry the material over their networks would not be held liable under this provision. However, if an on-line provider offers a service -- such as a menu of Internet sites or monitors a "chat room" -- in which objectionable material is exchanged, then there is liability.

Concern about the indecency provision revolves around civil liberty issues of defining indecency on open networks and whether it is constitutional to prohibit such material from minors. Shortly after the bill was signed into law, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit to have this section of P.L. 104-104 ruled unconstitutional, There are also concerns about the role the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in monitoring the Internet in the legislation. Opponents contend that in a law to deregulate the U.S. telecommunications industry, the FCC's role should be reduced, not enhanced. Others comment that it is very appropriate for the agency which both monitors and regulate the standards of communications conduct in the United States to also monitor the Internet.

A U.S. District Court (Philadelphia) has declared unconstitutional provisions relating to regulation of certain types of information on the Internet and issued a preliminary injunction blocking their enforcement. The Department of Justice has requested U.S. Supreme Court review of this case. If upheld, this court ruling would negate this provision of P.L. 104-104. [See CRS Issue Brief 95067, Telecommunications Regulatory Reform.]

--Another controversial provision of P.L. 104-104 is the section addressing "V-chip" technology. The law requires that technology which would block or stop transmission of explicit material broadcast on television be incorporated into television sets manufactured and sold in the United States within 2 years. The technology, based on a semiconductor chip incorporated into television sets, would work as follows. Television broadcasts would carry ratings which would indicate the content of broadcasts, indicating whether they have explicitly violent or sexually graphic material. Adults could then block transmission of the broadcast by activating the V-chip within the television set. The law's provision calls for a voluntary viewing standard to be adopted by the U.S. broadcast industry. If an industry system is not in place in one year, the FCC may establish a panel to set broadcast ratings.

Many critics, including representatives from the major U.S. television networks, opposed this provision. While conceding that there will likely be some form of V-chip applications in the near future, they also contend that the V-chip will reduce personal choice, impose a viewing standard on American consumers, is expensive, and will require an imperfect and subjective ratings system. Supporters address these issues in the following way. They contend that the provision will add, not reduce, personal choice, particularly assisting patents concerned over children's viewing habits. Adult consumers will not necessarily be affected nor compelled to use this technology, since they will likely control television viewing patterns. Its cost is relatively inexpensive, very similar to technology used for hearing impaired systems currently in television sets.

Currently there appears to be a tentative agreement between government and industry over implementation of this technology, the ratings standards, and how they are set. But as the NII develops and may potentially contain multimedia technologies and services, screening and monitoring devices might become more common (and required) in other fields.

--Another provision raising concerns is the relationship between long-distance communications carriers and regional Bell Operating Companies (called RBOCs). After much congressional debate, P.L. 104-104 provides near-term and unrestricted access for the RBOCs to enter long-distance communications service. Long-distance companies have opposed this provision, contending that the already powerful RBOCs will raise their overall rates and gain a monopoly over communications systems vital to the development of the information superhighway. The RBOCs contend that to foster the development of the information superhighway of tomorrow, they must be able to offer both long-distance as well as local communications services.

--A provision included in P.L. 104-104 (introduced by Senators Snow and Rockefeller) would require rural nonprofit health care centers to pay rates "reasonably comparable" to those charged to commercial concerns, while schools and libraries would pay "affordable" rates, covering only a portion of a carrier's local costs for the service. Many are concerned that unrestricted competition will create NII "haves" and "have nots" who may or may not afford, or have access to, the NII. Others contend that unrestricted competition will be like a tide raising all ships, and that schools, libraries and hospitals will benefit without this provision.

--Concerns about the concentration of communications broadcasters in certain markets led policymakers to include in the final bill provisions which would limit broadcast ownership of one company to 35% of the national viewing audience. As telecommunications and information technologies converge, this may affect how the NII is developed and who develops it, particularly in the wake of several mergers and acquisitions of telecommunications and information technology companies in 1995-1996.

Information Infrastructure Grants Program: FY1997

The core NII programs, outside of the CIC R&D program, reside in the Department of Commerce. The Department of Commerce FY1997 appropriations is contained in conference report 104-683 for H.R. 3610. The conference report and bill were passed by the House of Representatives on September 28 (370-37), and by the Senate on September 30 (by voice vote). President Clinton signed the bill into law on Sept. 30, 1996 (P.L. 104-208). The relevant funding marks include:

--For FY1996 NTIA had an overall budget of $54 million. For FY1997, the Clinton Administration has requested $87.9 million. H.R. 3610, provides $56.74 million for NTIA in FY1997.

--NTIA's Information Infrastructure grants program is funded at $21.5 million for FY1996. This program provides grants for information and telecommunications technology development deemed critical to the Clinton Administration's National Information Infrastructure (NII) initiative. The Clinton Administration has requested $59 million for this program in FY1997. Congress has approved $21.49 million, down just slightly from the current FY1996 mark, but substantially lower than the Administration's request.

--Public broadcasting facilities, planning, and construction is funded at $15.5 million for FY1996. Critics contend that such broadcasting facilities, planning, and construction can be supported from other sources, including the private sector. Supporters contend that this is an important segment of the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure. The Clinton Administration requested $8 million for this NTIA program. Congress approved $15.25 million for this program in FY1997.

Another NTIA program, the Endowment for Children's Educational Television, is not considered an information infrastructure program. In this past, this program provided support for the hardware needed for public broadcast facilities. Neither the Clinton Administration requested, nor has Congress has provided, any funding for this program for FY1997.

Issues Related to the Federal Role

Debate exists as to what role the federal government should play with regard to evolution of the NII. At the beginning of the Clinton Administration, there was some confusion about campaign statements that seemed to imply that the federal government should take an active role in "building information superhighways," a notion that was unsettling to many within the telecommunications industry. On January 23, 1996, President Clinton outlined several issues in his State of the Union address pertaining to the NII: development of the Information Superhighway, funding for information and telecommunications technologies for schools, and the importance of the V-chip as part of the telecommunications bill.

The debate has broadened as Speaker Gingrich and some Members of the 104th Congress have expressed other approaches to the information age. The telecommunications deregulation legislation considered and passed by the 104th Congress, and signed by President Clinton, do not necessarily differ in their goals and objectives of an NII. This includes development of a integrated network system that will permit educators and students to have access to information; a populace well informed of issues and how their representatives vote; and enhanced productivity for U.S. firms in a global environment. But what is the federal role for planning, financing, and operating the NII, and at what point is the public sector serving as a catalyst for private investment?

The federal debate regarding creation and development of the NII will in part be shaped by developments in the private sector and among information and telecommunications experts. Several highly regarded reports from outside the federal government may provide congressional policymakers other perspectives when considering the NII, while others contend that the federal role in developing the NII should be greatly curtailed or eliminated.

Many industry representatives feel that various types of government support for the NII are appropriate to lay the foundation for long-term economic growth and success in international competition. For example, the Computer Systems Policy Project (CSPP) has called for the government to develop milestones for NII development, promote industry-developed interoperability standards through government purchases of NII-related equipment and services, support U.S. industry's standards interests in international bodies, fund testbeds and demonstration projects, remove barriers to competition, and develop definitions of essential NII services and resources.

The Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) has endorsed federal oversight of NII-related standards development by industry groups, and federal arbitration if such development becomes bogged down by industry disputes. CCIA also encourages having government set time-frames for the establishment of required standards, support research into NII applications and user-friendly interfaces, aid "precompetitive" technology testbeds, and, if necessary, target subsidies to users.

The private sector Council on Competitiveness issued a report on the NII entitled Breaking the Barriers to the National Information Infrastructure in December 1994. The Council on Competitiveness report emphasizes that the promise of the NII applications still remains largely unmet, and that the reluctance of people and organizations to change remains a significant barrier to the widespread use of new applications. The report emphasizes regulatory and legal barriers as the most important for new applications, citing fields like telemedicine and health care where both the actual and potential liability concerns are paramount. The Council on Competitiveness report acknowledges the importance of federal investment in new NII technologies and encouraging applications. But the report stresses the importance of ongoing public and private sector applications as the course most likely to deliver on the promise of the NII.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), representing the nation's scientific, engineering and technical communities, also has addressed aspects of the NII. In February 1995, the National Research Council (NRC) of the NAS released a report, Evolving the High Performance Computing and Communications Initiative to Support the Nation's Information Infrastructure. The report contends that the U.S. computer industry has benefitted from 40 years of federal support. The unanticipated benefits springing from federal research money, combined with the inherent dynamism of the industry, has made this government-industry relationship an important part of U.S. competitiveness. According to the NRC, federal support of the HPCC program should not be significantly reduced, although continued program redirection may be necessary. Redirection may include national, rather than grand, challenges -- fewer specific scientific and mathematical applications, and instead broader uses in schools and libraries. Network and NII development should be emphasized over peak performance benchmarks in supercomputer technologies.

Not all of the experts observing this issue call for an expanded federal role in developing the NII. There are critics of the Department of Commerce and of NTIA who call for the elimination of both. They point to current private sector initiatives, the de-regulation of the U.S. telecommunications industry and reduced federal role in the management of telecommunications policies and contend that the Administration's NII policy is inappropriate. This perspective is included in legislation introduced by Representative Chrysler (H.R. 1756) and Senators Abraham and Roth (S. 929) calling for the elimination of the Department of Commerce. [See CRS Report 96-537, Department of Commerce Science and Technology Programs: Impacts on Dismantling Proposals.] Those who support this legislation contend that evolution of the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure and applications is towards lesser, not more, federal funding. Specifically, the current debate on NTIA's information infrastructure grants program may well lead to a reduced NTIA budget in FY1997, as well as significantly reduce the information infrastructure grants program. Some, such as Murray Weidenbaum of the Center for the Study of American Business, take the position that the information infrastructure grants program represents a form of Industrial Policy. Testifying before the Committee on Commerce of the House of Representatives on the abolishment of the Department of Commerce (September 12, 1995), Weidenbaum stated that any telecommunications research sponsored by the federal government should be done at the National Science Foundation, and supported as basic science. Beyond that role, federal support of information infrastructure grants "means that a special interest bureau retains the responsibility for directing this portion of private sector development."

The NII and Applications

Various interest groups and individual analysts have used the NII concept or similar visions to describe how use of new generations of computer and telecommunications technology might enhance the quality of life for all Americans. Recognizing that the United States has a substantial information infrastructure that increasingly makes use of an expanding national inventory of computers and telecommunications equipment, these visions try to describe what could likely be accomplished with these technologies either through new applications or greater diffusion of innovative applications already in use. Most NII-related visions do not consider evolution of an NII to be a goal in and of itself. Rather, the NII is seen as a means to such ends as improving U.S. commercial and industrial competitiveness within global markets, enhancing the productivity of research and development activities, enhancing educational achievement by current and future workers, improving health care delivery, increasing government efficiency, and expanding access to and effective use of information resources by the American population.

A key characteristic of the NII concept is information on demand -- enabling of individuals and organizations to immediately retrieve any needed information from anywhere for any purpose. In applications that have been proposed for special attention by the federal government, the NII might support the following capabilities.

--Education: Connecting all students and teachers to information-sharing networks would provide them immediate access to a wealth of educational resources, whether in urban or rural areas or at school or home. Computer-based instruction can allow students to make progress at their own pace and free teachers to devote more individual attention to each of their students. Electronic libraries could provide students not only with text, but photos, videos, and recordings and interactive multimedia technologies that will more fully engage and enlighten them. Still, some question whether technology alone can provide educational opportunities without other constructive policies in place. For example, Bell Atlantic (an RBOC) received a great deal of attention--and credit--for providing computers, developing the infrastructure and funding continued support for Internet connections for urban school children in Union, NJ. However, educators familiar with the situation in Union City are quick to point out that a series of concurrent education reforms, including smaller class sizes, longer school days, and work focused on specific achievements contributed more substantially to improvements in children test scores. In general, some educators are concerned that placing too much emphasis on information technology and infrastructure, while important, will divert important resources away from other needed education reforms, such as improved training for teachers

--Government Information: Quickly identifying, locating, and retrieving specific information from the vast resources created and maintained by government has been a chronic problem for many potential users, including those interested in agricultural, health, weather, economic, science, and other data. Access to all types of government information using the type of storage and retrieval technologies pioneered within the Internet could allow "one-stop shopping" for such information from virtually any computer in the United States. Already there have been great strides in developing on-line federal resources and services, (although it is unlikely that a "virtual government," as some are predicting, will be a reality any time soon, if ever). The Library of Congress has developed an on-line database retrieval system containing congressional legislation, hearings, and reports called "Thomas," intended for all network users. In the executive branch, the Departments of Commerce, State, Treasury and Justice are among the federal agencies which now regularly provide data through Web sites.

--Health Care: Advanced communications, including two-way video, might increase the amount and quality of health care that Americans could receive in their homes, in their personal physician's office, or in their local clinic or hospital by allowing better access to remote medical expertise. Computer-based patient records might improve the availability of individual medical histories for decisionmaking by authorized health care providers and reduce costs. Still, there are concerns that there are not enough privacy and security safeguards of patients' medical records to warrant extensive data transfer and retrieval.

--Libraries: Interconnection and digitization of library collections would enable more individuals to have access to more information resources, while limiting the amount of information that any one library must take responsibility for maintaining on site. Digitization, which is the electronic recording of text, images, sound, and other data resources, would make these resources more accessible to disabled persons such as the mobility-, hearing-, or vision-impaired. Using local libraries as a gateway to the NII might ensure that information is accessible and prevent a society of "information haves and have-nots." NII policies and programs have targeted libraries for technology and infrastructure development. But policymakers still debate whether it is the primary role of the public sector to provide all libraries with technology and applications, or whether it should be some combination of private, federal, state and local support.


LEGISLATION

P.L. 104-104, S. 652
Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act of 1995. Provides for a pro-competitive, de-regulatory national policy framework designed to accelerate rapidly private sector deployment of advanced telecommunications and information technologies and services by opening all telecommunications markets to competition. Introduced March 30, 1995; referred to Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Reported March 30 (S.Rept. 104-23). Passed (81-18) Senate, as amended, June 15, 1995. House struck all after enacting clause and inserted in lieu H.R. 1555. Passed House, amended, October 12, 1995. Conference held, October-December 1996. Passed by House (414-16) and the Senate (91-5) February 1. Signed into law February 8, 1996.

P.L. 104-683, H.R. 3610
Making Omnibus Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1997. Provides for related National Information Infrastructure activities through the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and other programs. Introduced as H.R. 3814, February 6, 1996; referred to Committee on Appropriations. Committee markup held July 9. Referred to floor of House of Representatives and amendments considered, July 23-24. Passed with amendments; referred to Senate July 24. Considered and passed by Committee on Appropriations (H.Rept. 104-103) August 1. Considered by the Senate, tabled August 8. Incorporated into H.R. 3610, with conference report (H.Rept. 104-683) September 10. House approves bill and conference report (370-37) September 28. Senate approves by voice vote, September 30. Signed into law September 30, 1996.


FOR ADDITIONAL READING

Drake, William J., ed. The new information infrastructure. New York: the twentieth century fund press, 1995. 448 pages.

National Academy of Sciences. The unpredictable certainty: Information infrastructure through 2000. Washington: national research council, 1996. 281 pages.

----- Computing and communications in the extreme. Washington: national research council, 1996, 160 pages.

----- Evolving the high performance computing and communications initiative to support the nation's information infrastructure. Washington: national research council, 1995. 119 pages.

CRS Issue Brief

CRS Issue Brief 95067. Telecommunications regulatory reform, by Angele A. Gilroy.

CRS Reports

CRS Report 95-272. The high performance computing and communications (hpcc) program: An introduction, by Glenn J. McLoughlin.

CRS Report 95-565. The future of bellcore and telecommunications r&d issues and options, by Glenn J. McLoughlin.



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