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Private industry, fearful of government involvement and eager to lay claim to pieces of the game, has been moving quickly in the past few months to seize the initiative. GTE, the largest independent telephone company, has already built a system in Cerritos, California, that lets customers pay bills, play games, read children's stories and make airline reservations through the same wire that brings them basic cable television and 30 pay-per-view channels. Three hundred fifty miles north, in Castro Valley, Viacom, the purveyor of MTV and Nickelodeon, is building a similar system to test consumer reaction to the new services.
Some of the projects seem more impressive than they are. TCI customers in the suburbs of Denver already have what looks like true video on demand. By pointing a remote control at the TV set, they can select from among 2,000 offerings (from Hook to old Marx Brothers movies to last night's MacNeil Lehrer NewsHour) and have their choices appear on screen whenever they want them, any time, day or night. But behind the high-tech service is an almost laughably low-tech delivery system. When a customer presses the Enter button, a bell goes off in a three-story building a few miles away, alerting a TCI attendant that he has five minutes to run to the video library, grab the proper tape and slot it into one of a bank of VCRs.
TCI's Denver setup reveals the weakness behind a lot of the information- superhighway hype: for all their posturing, neither the phone companies nor the cable-TV operators are quite ready to build a fully interactive and automated data highway that stretches from coast to coast. But thanks to a number of technical innovations, they are getting awfully close.
The key to the entire enterprise is fiber. Fiber-optic cable, made up of hair-thin strands of glass so pure you could see through a window of it that | was 70 miles thick, is the most perfect transmitter of information ever invented. A single strand of fiber could, in theory, carry the entire nation's radio and telephone traffic and still have room for more. As it is deployed today, fiber uses less than 1% of its theoretical capacity, or bandwidth, as it's called in the trade. Even so, it can carry 250,000 times as much data as a standard copper telephone wire or, to put it another way, it can transmit the contents of the entire Encyclopedia Britannica every second.
In the mid-1980s, AT&T, MCI and Sprint installed fiber-optic cable between major U.S. cities to increase the capacity of their long-distance telephone lines. At about the same time, the Federal Government, spurred by Gore, leased some of these lines to give scientists a high-speed data link to supercomputers funded by the National Science Foundation. These two networks, private and public, carry the bulk of the country's telephone and data traffic. In the superhighway system of the future, they are the interstate turnpikes.