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The Government is the dark horse in the race to the information highway. It got into the business almost by accident: thanks to Gore's lobbying during the 1980s, it funded the fiber-optic links that form the backbone of Internet, the sprawling computer grid that is for students, scientists and the Pentagon what Prodigy and CompuServe are for ordinary computer users. Today Internet has grown into the world's largest computer bulletin board and data bank, home to 10 million to 15 million networkers who use it for many of the purposes the information highway might serve: sending and receiving mail, sharing gossip and research results, searching for information in hard-to-reach libraries, playing games with opponents in other cities, even exchanging digitized sounds, photographs and movie clips.
During the 1992 campaign, Clinton and Gore repeated the information-highway metaphor so often that many voters and industry leaders were left with the impression that the government actually planned to build it, to use taxpayer dollars to construct a data freeway that anybody could ride. But the spending proposals released after the election make it clear that the Administration's goals are more modest. Of the $5 billion requested for the next four years, nearly $3 billion would be spent building supercomputers. Most of the rest would be set aside for developing techniques for transmitting different kinds of data over the networks such as CAT scans and engineering blueprints and on pilot projects to give schools, hospitals, libraries and other nonprofit institutions access to Internet.
The government is more likely to play a critical role in cutting through the thicket of state and federal regulations that have grown up over the years to keep the local telephone and cable-TV monopolies out of each other's business. White House officials say they want to give the private sector incentives to invest in the data highways. At the same time, however, they insist on preserving features of the current system that voters value, such as universal access to affordable phone and television service and protection against price gouging.
In a speech in New York City two weeks ago, acting Federal Communications Commission Chairman James Quello cautioned industry executives against making all television pay per view. Free TV, he warned, "is essential to a well- informed citizenry and electorate in a democracy." As if to punctuate his remarks, the FCC last week voted to cut the cost of most cable-TV services 10% and to make it harder for operators to raise rates in the future. The commission also issued a ruling in an ongoing dispute between the TV networks and the Hollywood studios, relaxing restrictions that have prevented the networks from owning shows and sharing in the lucrative rerun market. As new ways of packaging and delivering these shows emerge, skirmishes over copyrights and program ownership are likely to become increasily bitter and complex.