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White House Report Outlines Communication Superhighway

By Cindy Skrzycki
and Paul Farhi
The Washington Post

The Clinton administration will try to put its mark on the fractious debate over the direction of the nation's telecommunications industries by putting together a wish list for building a national "information superhighway," administration officials said Monday.

In a report to be released by the White House Wednesday, the administration will signal that it hopes to engineer a major overhaul of communications laws that have been in existence for almost 50 years. The report will form the framework for an administration working group modeled on Hillary Rodham Clinton's health-care task force.

The group's broad goals are to promote competition among industries in building the highway, to ensure universal access, protect individual privacy, remove regulatory and legal barriers to building the system, and encourage research and development of products and services through federal grants.

The "information superhighway" is a generic term for a network or series of networks that may someday carry a broad array of computer data, electronic entertainment and telecommunications services into the average household.

As a preliminary document, the report is expected to avoid specifics on important issues, such as how to finance the building of new telecommunications systems. It is also expected to be short on advice on how to settle arguments that have simmered for years, such as how to open local phone networks to competition and whether regional phone companies can compete in businesses they are now legally prohibited from entering.

Instead, the administration will leave these questions up to working groups of experts picked from the public policy arena, industry, education, labor and individual users.

"The role of government is to promote competition and see to it that consumers aren't gouged," said Larry Irving, the administration's top official on telecommunications policy and a member of the Information Infrastructure Task Force, which hammered out the report over the past six months.

However, some people question whether the administration's efforts are not being overtaken by the rapid pace of change in the telecommunications field. Large computer, telephone and entertainment companies have been rolling out their plans for building their own information highways, and several have agreed to huge interindustry mergers. There also have been several major court decisions and technological breakthroughs that have begun to alter the direction of telecommunications industries.

"They may be behind the curve," said an aide to Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the chairman of the House commerce committee. For example, he said Dingell has begun discussions with House Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks, D-Texas, to craft legislation that would give phone companies expanded powers outside their own business. The Senate is already considering a bill by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Jack Danforth, R-Mo., that would allow the Baby Bell companies to enter the cable television field in exchange for greater guarantees of competition in local phone service.

But Irving said the administration can still play an active role in shaping the telecommunications field. At present, he said that there is no overall management of various private-sector efforts to build advanced communications networks.

"We want to know if there is a way to deploy competition for the benefit of consumers and users," he said. " ... The marketplace left to its own devices won't embrace education, medicine and social needs first."

Some public-policy groups worry that the information superhighway would replace the existing system of universal telephone service.

That promises to be a thorny question, especially since the history of regulating and writing laws for the telecommunications industry has been a stormy one dominated by powerful competing industries.

The paper will stress that the administration would like competitive access to any national information system, meaning that there would be many roads into the system, which might include cable, satellite and fiber optic entries.