A community net approach in Austin [cr-951225]


Richard Moore

Date: Fri, 01 Dec 95
>From: "W. Curtiss Priest" <•••@••.•••>
To: Multiple recipients of list <•••@••.•••>
Subject: L.A. Times column, 11/30/95

Posted by:
Curtiss Priest

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
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Date: Thu, 30 Nov 1995
From: •••@••.••• (Gary Chapman)
Subject: L.A. Times column, 11/30/95

The following is my column that appearned in The Los Angeles Times today,
November 30, 1995. It will appear in other newspapers in the next week,
including The San Jose Mercury News and The Boston Globe.

-- Gary

Gary Chapman
The 21st Century Project
LBJ School of Public Affairs
Drawer Y, University Station
University of Texas
Austin, TX  78713
(512) 471-8326
(512) 471-1835 (fax)
Electronic mail: •••@••.•••


It is largely taken for granted today that "market forces" will determine
our technological future. But what the market is likely to deliver in
telecommunications may not be what we need, nor what we could have.

Assumptions about the benefits of a specific kind of competition lie at the
heart of the mammoth telecommunications deregulation bill now being
considered by Congress. That bill, if passed, will largely determine the
architecture of the fabled information superhighway. But it's based on the
notion that the public good will be served by competition in wires, while
we should really be trying to foster competition in services.

The large telecom companies have billions of dollars invested in their
wires and switches -- either in copper wire and fiber, for the telephone
companies, or coaxial cable and fiber for the cable companies, with both
sectors using satellites. Deregulation of these industries means that each
will be able to use their wires and switches to encroach on the other's
business -- telephone companies will start to offer video services, like
movies on demand, while cable companies are gearing up to offer telephone

Consumers, according to the theory, will get better and cheaper service
with these industries competing against each other.

But how many consumers will be able to make a reasonable choice between
cable or telephone companies, when both will start offering similar
services and for roughly comparable prices? Most people are already baffled
trying to sort out the claims of long-distance providers like AT&T, Sprint,
and MCI. And a lot of people are angry about the constant harangues of
these companies, especially their dinner-time telemarketing calls. Try
multiplying those by ten.

A completely different arrangement is possible. If people were given access
to a universal, public network, especially one based on fiber optic cables
with virtually limitless carrying capacity, we'd see an explosion of
entrepreneurial energy instead of more marketing appeals. We'd build an
entirely new economic sector instead of divvying up the current telecom
business differently.

The city of Austin, Texas, where I live, is pursuing an innovative and
controversial plan that many communities around the nation are watching
with intense interest.

Austin reportedly has the highest Internet usage, per capita, of any major
metropolitan area in the U.S. The city is home to a booming home-grown
multi-media industry, largely made up of small, start-up firms, some of
them run on kitchen tables. It's also a growing world center of
semiconductor manufacturing.

To serve this population, city officials have proposed an unusual
public-private partnership to wire all Austin homes and businesses with
high-speed fiber connections within two years. The private partner gets to
manage the network and collect leasing fees in exchange for its investment
in the hardware. The City offers its rights-of-way, permission to tear up
the streets, and an exclusive arrangement with the contractor, in exchange
for some important public interest principles.

These include universal service, interoperability of components, and open
systems, which all add up to a public network infrastructure open to all
users with maximum available bandwidth available to everyone.

What the city officials hope will result from this kind of arrangement is
an Internet-like network model, but with bandwidth that can carry video,
data, voice, and sound all at once. With new technologies appearing that
make the World-Wide Web more and more capable of exploiting this capacity,
entrepreneurs could blossom all over town. And the network could carry
conventional cable TV, telephone, and online services as well, producing
true competition between large companies instead of a zero-sum scramble for
market share.

This plan is especially important for low-income neighborhoods, because
what typically obstructs economic development in those communities is the
reluctance of people with money to shop or do business in poor areas. A
network presence would remove that barrier -- geography would no longer

Southwestern Bell and Austin Cablevision, a subsidiary of Time Warner,
oppose the City of Austin's plan. They envision a model in which they own
the wires and lease their bandwidth to content providers that they select
and then market to consumers in "bundles," the way cable TV, America
Online, Prodigy, or CompuServe work now. Their networks would not be open,
and it's likely that their interactivity would be highly constrained --
enough for users to send e-mail and a credit card number, but not enough to
have a full-blown, interactive video presence on the network that could
rival their own offerings.

This is a battle that will be waged all over the country -- it is already
apparent in the telecommunications reform bill passed by both houses of
Congress, which reinforces the model preferred by large corporations.
Unfortunately, most citizens don't understand the first thing about this
debate, either what's at stake or what alternatives are feasible. This is
true even in Austin.

Television commercials from the large telecom companies are now filled with
encomiums to the "information superhighway." But our concrete highways are
a genuine public resource, and, at the same time, the arteries of our
economy. They carry all vehicles, old and new, commercial and private,
sleek and homely. Is it too late to start thinking about the "information
superhighway" in the same way?


 Posted by Richard K. Moore (•••@••.•••) Wexford, Ireland
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