Universal Access

by Karen Coyle
Keynote Speech at Student Pugwash
January 26, 1995, Stanford University (Copyright Karen Coyle, 1995)
At the 1994 annual meeting of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility that took place last fall in San Diego, we held a general discussion on issues of interest to the membership. One of the members noted that there is a lot of talk about universal access today, but he also noticed something a little strange: it seems that everyone is for it; the Clinton administration is for it, the telephone and cable companies are for it, the public interest groups are for it, and now, today, even Newt is for it. Not one of these groups has given a clear definition of universal access, but it seems that there is a good chance that we aren't talking about the same thing.

So CPSR took as its task to define universal access from its public interest perspective. This is a bit tricky as a task because, though it is talked about in every medium, the "information highway" or "National Information Infrastructure" does not exist yet. So how do we define universal access to a system that hasn't even been sketched out?

A Short History of This Idea

It's important to review how this concept of universal access came to be part of the Information Highway metaphor, because the concept takes us back to our roots as a democratic society.

In 1986, the NSF began funding high-speed lines between the main supercomputer centers that are linked through the Internet. These lines were integrated into the Internet as the NSF backbone, and served to increase the bandwidth and communication speed of all Internet users to some degree.

Within a few years, telecommunications technology had gone forward to the point that the Internet backbone was no longer state of the art. In 1988, then Senator Albert Gore introduced a bill called "The High Performance Computing Act" that would create a high-speed connection between the US supercomputer centers and keep them in a competitive position in relation to world developments in computing and scientific research. The bill was dubbed "NRN - National Research Network." There was no language in the bill to specify that the whole Internet community would benefit from this technology upgrade, and protest was soon voiced from the university community, at the time the largest and most influential community on the Internet. Quickly, Gore responded to the educational community's concerns by extending the provisions of the bill to include the higher education community, and the bill was renamed "NREN - National Research and Education Network."

Before the NREN bill reached a vote, Senator Boucher introduced amendments that would include the rest of our educational levels (K-12) - after all, education does not begin in college. It also included access for public libraries and hospitals in the Information Highway. These amendments were not included in the version of the bill that passed in late 1991, but planted the seed of an idea that has become the Information Highway that we talk about today: the one that affords access to all. It was a leap from our concept of computing as being associated with scientific research and higher education, but, in a society dedicated to the idea of equality (even if we generally fail to achieve the reality) it was a direct consequence of asking the question: to whom should we extend these resources?

In 1993, Senator Markey introduced the "National Communications Competition and Information Infrastructure Act." This bill took up where the Boucher amendments to the NREN left off, and built a much broader framework of access, with sections like "Equal Access and Network Functionality and Quality" and used the term "common carrier" to describe the social role expected of this new telecommunications technology. The Markey bill passed in 1994, but has not been allocated funding.

In 1994, the Clinton administration officially announced the National Information Infrastructure as a major project, and appointed the Information Infrastructure Task Forces that would work on various aspects of making this technology a reality. In their opening statement on the NII, they included "Universal Access" as one of the fundamental goals.

So once we began expanding access to the new communications technologies, we had to ask the question: expanded to whom? And in a society that purports to be democratic, the only possible answer was: to all.

However, the verbal commitment to universal access and the actual goals of the administration are not the same. The Clinton administration has clearly stated that the NII will be built by the commercial sector; and that the role of government is to eliminate regulatory barriers that would hinder the development. Can the commercial sector develop a system based on market concepts that provides universal access? It's in answering this question that the Clinton administration and telephone companies differ from the public interest groups, and this is where it becomes obvious that our definitions of universal access are not at all the same.

Access: To What?

Most discussions of universal access focus on the technology of access. There is the question of how we can provide access to every home - will we need to lay optical fiber in our cities? Will the access lines be from the telephone company, the cable company, or some other utility? Will access be through a computer, or through a television set-top box? What will the interface be, and can it be sufficiently user friendly? And - the big one - how can we make all of this affordable?

But at CPSR we decided that there is a question to be asked even before we ponder these, and that is: access to what? How can we possibly begin the design without first answering this question?

If you were ask your average "person on the street" to define "information" the answers you get would probably belong in a fairly narrow range. Most people would define information as being the contents of an encyclopedia, or perhaps hard data, like statistics. Some would mention history books or the news.

But there's a lot more to it: for example, most of us agree that other people are probably the best source of information - and we usually turn to other people when we have a question. There are also the creative activities as poetry or art - you might not think of these as information, but these communicate ideas, from one person to another and therefore are information. And then there are the many pieces of small, mundane and even personal information that we use each day; the local bus schedules, city and town maps. Information covers a much broader range than we generally realize.

Another important thing to remember is that information and communication are inseparable because communication is the basic activity that makes information usable. Communication and information cover the range between "Hello. How are you?" and "E=MC2." Both are present in those two statements, though we cannot define where one ends and the other begins. To be sure, information that is not communicated is not information, though it may have that potential.

So the NII becomes not just an information system, but a system to communicate the information, and the whole range. It should really be called the National Communication Infrastructure. The term "communication" would imply the areas of art, poetry, report cards and other personal and less data oriented information that many people have trouble seeing in the NII and Information Highway terminology.

Is the NII a technological change?

We already have sophisticated communication systems today in our current telephone and computer networks. These systems are constantly evolving, so that the telephone system has added the technologies of answering machines, multi-line phones, voice mail and even computer modems to its original design for carrying voice across wires. The NII is, in a real sense, only a natural evolution of the technology these communications systems.

The change, the "big bang" of this story, is conceptual, not technological: the recognition of the role of information in today's society has become part of our collective consciousness; in just a few years, the Information Highway went from being a remark made by a senator in relation to a high-tech project to something we all expect to participate in.

Who will provide the content?

Because of the use of the term "information" in the naming and description of this evolutionary stage of our communications technology, we tend have different assumptions about the role of technology providers that might not be correct. The telephone is a point-to-point carrier of communications with the information content provided solely by the users. With the NII, there is the implication that the information content is part of the package, as is the case with newspapers, broadcast media and publishing industries.

We are left with the question of "who will provide the content," and that leads us back to the question of "access to what?"

Today's Information and Tomorrow's Information Highway

We live in a marketed world where products are researched and tested down to their ideal position on store shelves. But very little is being said about the information market, even though information has been declared the product of the '90's. There has been little talk of what the information product will be, other than the scare stories of "500 channels with nothing on."

If nothing else, we need to understand what information we use today, even though our information outlook may well expand in the future. And if you could find a valid unit of measure for the many bits of information that the proverbially average person uses each day, I wager that it would not be that which the information industry is eager to provide.

Most of our needs are met by information that could best be characterized as "mundane:" from weather to traffic reports; the date and time that we read from our watch; to the evening news. A great deal of this information is local in nature: we make use of bus schedules, city ordinances, notices of neighborhood meetings and events. A good deal of the information is social in nature, not commercial. Any organization that provides a social service has an information-providing component: local governments, health services, churches and non-profits, school districts. Each of these reaches out with information to a constituency, and providing that information is a necessary cost of providing the underlying service. Some of the information we need is undeniably essential: the 911 call; the 800 number for the poison control center.

If you were to count every phone number you can call, every pamphlet that is passed out, every flyer that is posted, you might have some idea of the quantity of information we use today. And this information not only is not optional, it is the "stuff" of our world, more so than the items in the encyclopedia or the numbers in a database.

And now the news: this information has little or no commercial potential. Instead, it costs money to provide it.

And what if this information isn't there?

Some information people might choose to do without: they'd rather wait on the corner than pay money for a bus schedule; and we can't get the voters to the polls even after sending them free voter pamphlets - do you think they'd pay for them, or to vote?

Then there is some information we cannot - as a society - afford to have people not get: where to get low-cost childhood immunizations; how to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

And there is the information that is aimed at people who, by definition, cannot afford to pay for it: how to apply for welfare or subsidized housing; how to apply for job training assistance for the unemployed.

Left to market economics, much of this information wouldn't be available at all; and that means we wouldn't have universal access, because it isn't universal access if the information highway provides for the information needed by big business and well-to-d- individuals, but not that needed by our communities, minority groups or less wealthy individuals. If the information you need isn't there, there is no access, no matter how much fiber we lay.

What does this mean in terms of design?

The Clinton administration is counting on the commercial sector of our economy to deliver the information highway to the American public. And companies are lining up to get in on the ground floor of this new market, setting up online shopping malls and advertising over the World Wide Web in living color.

But who is going to compete for this vast market of mundane or service-oriented information? Who is going to compete to provide information that can't make a profit?

The only possibility for a universal access information system is one in which communities, however they define themselves, can provide their own information. They are the only ones who know what is needed; they are the only ones for whom it is economical; they are the ones who provide the services that generate much of the information.

And this means that every organization or individual that is an information provider today must also be able to be one in the future and that's the bottom line. And of course we hope that the new technologies will increase the level of democracy in our country, at least in terms of its exchange of information, and make it possible for all people to be information providers.

So that's our position: universal access is not defined as putting everyone in a position to receive information - it is putting everyone in a position to provide information as well as receive it. Our success at achieving universal access will be measured by the extent to which the information needs of all of our communities are met: rural and urban; ethnic and linguistic groups; and communities of interest. And in terms of democratic goals, the ability to be an active participant in our information and communications system can hopefully translate into a means for social and political activity that we have not seen since the death of the face-to-face town hall.

Interestingly, some communities have already begun to develop systems that meet their own needs. They are "growing their own", so to speak. I'm talking about the many freenets and community networks. These respond to exactly the needs that I have outlined here. They are able to capture the flavor of the community and to serve that community's organizations and interest groups.

Design Goals

What can you do?

I urge you to get involved with your community - in any way, but especially in how it makes use of technology and science. Many cities are trying hard to position themselves to make use of the new information technologies, but they need community support and community input to make it happen. Sometimes, they lack the technical expertise, and if you have any kind of computer skills, you may be able to volunteer your time.

Learn to teach. One of the really difficult things about this time of transition is that we need to bring everyone up to speed on these new technologies. Teach a child or a senior how to use a computer. Get your mother on email - if she's already on email, get your grandmother on email.

We want this to be a people's technology. And it can become one, if we all pitch in.

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