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Clear the way for innovation

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, March 15, 1995

Not only is technology changing the way we live, work, play, learn and move around, we are also rapidly changing the way we use technology.

For example, people are now using telephones not just for conversations with friends or family members but to link their home computers to the information superhighway where they transmit digital information to make airline reservations, consult an encyclopedia, play games or send and receive e-mail. On the other hand new software now permits peopie to use their home computers as telephones.

At the same time, cable TV and telephone companies are ordering so-called “set-top boxes” through which people can link their TV sets to giant computers called “servers” and order movies on demand.

Punchline: The new ways we are using technology make it increasingly difficult to tell where telephones and television stop and computers and software begin. They are increasingly converging and their functions increasingly overlap.

Or, consider applications: AT&T, Honeywell, GE Motor and other firms have announced an initiative to establish home-area networks that will provide automatic meter reading, power outage and theft detection, energy management and, eventually, remote energy management (e.g., permitting consumers to turn on their home air conditioning from work).

So, here is yet another major change. The world of telecomputing, formerly dominated by computer, software, telephone and CATV companies, now has a number of new players: broadcasters and companies that own rights-of-way for building new infrastructure (e.g., gas and electric companies, highway authorities, railroads). In short, it’s a whole new world and no one, especially government, knows how it is going to develop.

But some trends are clear. First, America’s telecomputing industries are the world’s leaders in technology.

Second, this country is ahead of every other country on the applications side — with the exception of Great Britain, where deregulation has permitted American computer, cable and telephone companies to work together in ways that government prevents them from working together in the U.S. Result: British consumers have many choices in how they use telecomputing services for home and business that are not available to the American consumer.

Third, America’s role as a global leader in telecomputing is in danger of being frittered away by Congress. Reason: The apparent desire by the new Republican Congress to “guide” the process of innovation and to chart every on-ramp and off-ramp of the information superhighway.

Problem: The new legislation preordains winners and losers, creates new layers of stifling regulation, and fails to eliminate bureaucratic red tape that keeps American companies from giving American consumers the kinds of products and services already available to consumers in Europe and Asia.

Once again, because of the heavy hand of government, “made in America” technology is being exported to benefit others. Even though Americans seemed to have voted for less government and less bureaucracy, and have shown a preference for letting markets rather than lawyers decide winners and losers, Republican leaders in the Senate seem not to have gotten the message. Let’s hope that changes.

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