THE MOST POWERFUL PLAYERS of the NII in terms of network research, development and investment, are the telecommunications industry triumvirate sometimes known as ETC - the entertainment, telephone and cable companies. These companies are exploring the potential for a variety of personal use information services, including transmitting games and movies over the network (often known as video-on-demand), as well as multimedia teleconferencing and video phones for business. In order to fill these potential niches as successfully as possible, the ETC industries are converging into a singular telecommunications industry: local Bell companies want to move into the video and long-distance markets, and the entertainment and cable companies wish to do the same within the information exchange market. For years, these industries have been unable to converge because of legislative and regulatory restrictions, but now that it has become clear that the NII would make the differences between the various telecommunication industries obsolete, government is loosening its grip (though not as quickly as some companies would like). Sooner rather than later, telecommunications companies will no longer be prevented from converging into a singular market.
Commercial NII Structure and Implementation
AS PART OF their overall plan, the leading telephone companies envision the NII to have two major components: an experimental network and a production network. The experimental network, as the name would suggest, would be a collectivity of national testbeds sponsored by academia, industry and government. The network would provide researchers with a state-of-the-art digital infrastructure in order to facilitate the design and implementation of future networks. The production network, on the other hand, would consist of all commercial networks, for business and personal use as well as for general education and research. Telecommuting, distance education, and entertainment and nearly anything else imaginable would all be a part of this network scheme.
In terms of the average consumer, the telecommunication vision of the NII would focus on a selection of "on-demand" services. At-home movies, video games, tele-classes and shopping would take up the majority of channels. But though we have bought into the vision of hundreds of interactive channels for our personal viewing pleasure (as many industry television spots have suggested), we continue to overlook the technological reality of this NII. In order to facilitate the success of this vision, the telecommunication industry is planning to implement a network based on fiber optics and coaxial cable. Fiber optic technology is an incredibly fast method of transmitting data. Capable of handling interactive and audiovisual signals, it is considered by many to be the key to the information highway. But connecting fiber to every house and every building in America would cost tens, if not hundreds of billions of dollars. Therefore, companies such as US West and Ameritech plan to combine fiber with coaxial cable, the standard wire used to connect cable signal transmissions to the back of a TV set. The telecommunication companies would lay down enough fiber so that each fiber line could accommodate about 500 households. From that point, the fiber lines would use standard coaxial cable to complete the so-called "last mile" of connectivity to the individual consumer.
An Example: A 400 Channel Universe?
FOR INSTANCE, let's say a telephone company were to offer consumers an NII package of 400 channels. One might assume this means 400 different movie channels, shopping channels and game channels for interactive use - in other words, a couch potato's paradise. In reality, though, the network would function much differently. For example, 60 of those channels might be set aside for one-way cable broadcasts, not unlike current cable TV packages. The bulk of the remaining 340 channels would be earmarked for video-on-demand services. These channels would be strictly unidirectional; the consumer would order a movie by placing a phone call, or sending an order by way of some other reserved channel. But in order to offer consumers videos as "on-demand" as possible, the films will have to be broadcast at regular intervals, because this form of network is not powerful enough to allow the consumer to start, stop and pause a film. Therefore, viewers would be forced to coincide their personal schedules with those of the videos, not unlike pay-per-view TV. And for every time a network provider offers a film, another channel is taken up.
What does this confusion mean for the at-home moviegoer? Well, suppose a network provider presents a certain film every 15 minutes, in order to give consumers a relative freedom of choice for viewing. If that film is two hours long, that means eight copies of it will be broadcast at any given time (in other words, a new signal every 15 minutes for two hours). If a network services claims to offer 240 channels for video-on-demand, in reality they can only offer a total of 30 films at a time (30 films times eight channels). At three or four dollars a film, moreover, many viewers may opt for renting a movie at the local video store instead. Critics cite this dilemma as one of the leading problems with the ETC vision of the NII.
End Result: The 400 Blows
AS FOR the 100 or so remaining channels in our hypothetical 400-channel network service, they would be reserved for limited interactive digital services, whether they were for at-home learning, video phones, or gambling. In order to provide two-way, interactive exchange without long delays, it becomes necessary to reserve two channels per interaction, one coming from the consumer and one from the provider (or another consumer). With 100 channels left over, that means a total of 50 services may be offered at any given time, divided between the 500 households that subscribe to the single fiber optic line. This scenario clearly poses problems of access for many users. How will it be determined which consumer has access to a line and which consumer does not? Service providers could choose to deliver more service channels to the consumer, but this would be at the cost of the user's ability to send signals back. In order to reserve channels for higher price interactive services, the average user's ability to communicate back to the network may be limited to predetermined set of commands. This possibility is a far cry from the other major vision of the NII - a Jeffersonian marketplace of electronic ideas where users have the ability to communicate information as well as retrieve it.