Everybody knows what the telephone is for. It rings. You pick it up. A voice travels down a wire and gets routed and switched right to your ear.
Everybody knows what to do with the television. You turn it on, choose a channel and let advertising, news and entertainment flow into your home.
Now imagine a medium that combines the switching and routing capabilities of phones with the video and information offerings of the most advanced cable systems and data banks. Instead of settling for whatever happens to be on at a particular time, you could select any item from an encyclopedic menu of offerings and have it routed directly to your television set or computer screen. A movie? Airline listings? Tomorrow's newspaper or yesterday's episode of Northern Exposure? How about a new magazine or book? A stroll through the L.L. Bean catalog? A teleconference with your boss? A video phone call with your lover? Just punch up what you want, and it appears just when you want it.
Welcome to the information highway. It's not here yet, but it's arriving sooner than you might think. Already the major cable operators and telephone companies are competing and collaborating to bring this communicopia to your neighborhood, while the Clinton Administration is scrambling to see how the government can join in the fun.
Driving this explosive merger of video, telephones and computers are some rather simple technological advances:
The ability to translate all audio and video communications into digital information.
New methods of storing this digitized data and compressing them so they can travel through existing phone and cable lines.
Fiber-optic wiring that provides a virtually limitless transmission pipeline.
New switching techniques and other breakthroughs that make it possible to bring all this to neighborhoods without necessarily rewiring every home.
Suddenly the brave new world of video phones and smart TVs that futurists have been predicting for decades is not years away but months. The final bottleneck the "last mile" of wiring that takes information from the digital highway to the home has been broken, and a blue-chip corporate lineup has launched pilot projects that could be rolled out to most of the country within the next six or seven years. Now the only questions are whether the public wants it and how much it is willing to pay.
We won't have to wait long to find out. By this time next year, vast new video services will be available, at a price, to millions of Americans in all 50 states. Next spring Hughes Communications will introduce DirecTv, a satellite system that delivers 150 channels of television through a $700 rooftop dish the size of a large pizza pie. At about the same time, Tele- Communications, Inc. (TCI), the world's biggest cable-TV operator, will begin marketing a new cable decoder that can deliver as many as 540 channels; next week it will announce plans to provide this service to 100 cities within the first year. Time Warner (the parent company of this magazine) is up and running with a 150-channel system in Queens, New York, and early next year will launch an interactive service that will provide video and information on demand to 4,000 subscribers in Orlando, Florida.