Computer Column



President Clinton, trying to do something about the state of education in America, is promoting a program to “connect every classroom and library to the Internet by the year 2000.”

In so doing, he says, the nation will be “connecting all of our schools to the Information Superhighway.” The trouble is that the Internet and the information superhighway are not the same.

The Internet exists but the superhighway does not, and while it is surely coming, no one knows exactly what it will be like. There is a distinct possibility it won’t look enough like the Internet to make the investment in technology to connect “every classroom and library” to the Internet worth it.

The Internet, of course, is that vast and growing network of computers, large and small, linked by telephone and other lines. It has brought unprecedented communication and information within reach of the average personal computer equipped with a modem, or, better still, connected to a computer network with a direct line to the Internet.

It has become the dominant obsession of the personal computer industry and of millions of users in recent years, and for good reason. The Internet is largely free. Yes, you need to buy the equipment and pay a service provider to give you access, but once you’re online most of its vast resources are available without additional charge.

The quotes cited above in this column, for example, were obtained from the White House’s site on the Internet’s World Wide Web. The whole process took about 10 minutes, from the time the computer was given the command to dial a local Internet service provider to the time the quotes had been copied from online White House speech texts to the Windows 95 “clipboard,” and then into the column. There was no charge.

Nowadays, you can do everything from download chapters of newly published books, to shopping, to listening to the radio to watching television on the Internet. Research materials are everywhere and free programs called “search engines” are available to help you find what you need.

Remarkable as it is, though, it’s far from perfect. The TV reception on the Internet is decidedly primitive: fuzzy, herky jerky images in a tiny square on your computer screen. Such are the limitations of the copper telephone wires by which most people now receive their Internet service.

Which brings us to the “information superhighway.” The term refers to technology which will bring us, by a single carrier, all our data, video, audio and telephone communications. No one knows, however, if it will be a wire and, if so, what kind of wire. It could be a fiber optic line of the kind now being used in more advanced telephone systems. It could be a coaxial cable, of the kind that now carries your cable TV signals. It could even be a satellite signal, of the kind that now beams hundreds of TV broadcasts, movies and music at once onto the 18-inch dishes that now serve more than 2 million households in the United States.

When the information superhighway is finally built, it will mean basically that everybody will have everything, or at least access to everything. It is in anticipation of this new technology that companies such as Microsoft are making huge investments in “content.”

That term refers to everything from information (as with MSNBC, the Microsoft NBC News 24 hour cable news channel) to photographic images (as in Bill Gates’ purchase of the vast picture library of the Bettmann Archive.)

The Internet may survive in the brave new world of the information superhighway, but it is likely to be just a tributary of the vast river of material flowing into homes and offices. A school or library with access to it alone, and with computers and modems and the other equipment now used to access the Internet, will be in possession of utterly obsolescent gear, no matter how much it spent to acquire it.

So what does this mean for the Clinton administration and its program to hook schools and libraries up to the Internet?

Certainly no one can quarrel with the notion that students should have access to the Internet and most do now, at least through a library or other computer equipped facility.

But it will be costly to extend the service to “every classroom and library,” and the danger is that by the time it is done, the world may have passed the project by. Unless and this is a further danger those with a stake in the Internet project succeed in influencing Washington to try to stall the advent of the real information highway.

That’s the kind of thing that sometimes happens when the government gets too deeply involved in promoting technology. It’s more prone to happen when the people at the top don’t understand what they’re talking about.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at [email protected], or Brit Hume at [email protected].

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