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Roadblocks loom on superhighway

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday February 8, 1994

Dallas–More than a thousand people–from engineers to policy wonks–are assembled here to participate in the Western Communications Forum, an annual event to assess technology and new applications in the communications industry.

Speeches and panel discussions are alive with enthusiasm for the achievements and great potential of the convergence in communications technologies–CATV, telephony, computers, software and others. There is great anticipation for the new products and services that are coming down the pike and will dramatically change the way we live, work, play, learn and move around.

Industry insiders and veteran observers generally agree we are on the cusp of a new information revolution. Most feel it will impact first on the workplace–the “flexible workplace,” (e.g. home working, job-sharing, telecommuting), distributed work (outsourcing, Lone Eagles) and re-engineering.

The information revolution will then be felt by the consumer, giving people more choices, more convenience and more control over their lives.

But I wonder–not so much about the ability of these industries to deliver, but if policymakers and regulators will let them.

One concern is public opinion–as indicated by editorial cartoons. I have been collecting these cartoons about the information revolution–beginning with the Bell Atlantic-TCI deal last October. The 45 cartoons I have show three dominant themes.

The first is the “merger mania” theme: Big mergers didn’t work for consumers or shareholders the last time around. Why should they work now? These industry leaders don’t know what they are doing–and they are doing it at our expense.

The second theme is “unbridled monopoly power.” These cartoons generally portray the consumer as roadkill in the wake of telephone, CATV and other lumbering giants.

The third theme is the “so what?” theme: Why do I need all this? Can I order a pizza on the information highway? Isn’t all this “broadband, interactive, multimedia stuff ” just so much goldplating?

The problem: The public and their elected leaders are not plugged into the themes of progress and prosperity that dominate this assembly in Dallas. Put another way: Industry leaders are not in touch with the public.

Another concern is legislation. Lost in all the attention to Congressional healthcare and welfare reform, a crime bill is a basket of heavy-duty telecommunications “reform” legislation. This complex legislation–actually a full employment act for lawyers and Washington lobbyists–will bring many of these information revolution innovations to a screeching halt. Result: The information superhighway will take much longer to build, will be more expensive, and will reduce choices and convenience.

The communications industries should learn from the healthcare industry, which decided to make the public an ally in its efforts to derail a government takeover of one-seventh of the US economy. Result: There are now credible alternatives to the Clinton plan for healthcare reform. The communications industry could learn from the energy industry–which simply killed a Btu tax that was anti-jobs, anti-growth and anti-consumer.

Instead, the communications industries–especially the teleco and cable industries–are continuing to play a behind the scenes game, a game they have lost for ten years. If they continue, the losers will be consumers, prosperity, and US competitiveness in global markets.

Number:
183

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