Broadband Social Effects Gather Attention11/14/1999 7:00 PM Eastern
The policy implications of broadband communications are
catching the attention of movers and shakers, as evidenced by developments on both coasts
In New York, a new organization, The Broadband Forum,
working with two other groups, launched a nonpartisan approach to explore issues that
society faces in a broadband-networked world at events sandwiching a lunch ceremony at the
Waldorf-Astoria Hotel honoring cable magnate John Malone.
In Silicon Valley, competitors let go of each others'
throats long enough to get the Internet Policy Institute off the ground, aiming at a
"Brookings Institution" for the Internet in Washington, D.C.
Malone, at the Center for Communications' "Annual
Award Luncheon," articulated the dimensions of what is at stake as broadband takes
hold. "This technology is revolutionizing society as we know it, and it's changing
virtually every business as we know it," he said.
The advent of streamed video over high-speed networks,
combined with cheaper and bigger local storage capacity, will "revolutionize
advertising and marketing and will change the dynamics of the cable and broadcast
infrastructures as we see them today," Malone added.
"Hold onto your hats," he said. "If you look
at what's coming, what we see now is just the tip of the iceberg."
With 80 invited leaders representing business, government,
academia and the press in attendance, the Forum's morning roundtable discussion showed
that the people most involved in exploiting the information revolution have deep-seated
concerns about the broadband phase of that revolution.
It was equally clear that they are uncertain what, if
anything, can be done to address those concerns.
The roundtable chairman -- Nobel laureate and former chief
scientist of Lucent Technologies' Bell Laboratories Arno Penzias -- stressed that if
people are going to talk about broadband's societal implications, they should look beyond
the current, transitory phase.
While today, cable, wireless and telephone lines can
deliver data at a few megabits per second, it will soon be more cost-effective to deliver
services optically in the gigabit-per-second range than to ratchet up throughput
incrementally over existing copper, Penzias said.
Working in conjunction with the bandwidth explosion, the
gains in computing and storage capacity represent a shift from the broadcast model to
"an audience of one" in the advertising and marketing sphere, he added.
"Communications, broadcasting and computing are all
going to be transformed by broadband," Penzias said.
The freewheeling discussion that followed Penzias' talk
made it clear that "the audience-of-one" economic model -- relying on intimate
knowledge of the audience for success in advertising and marketing -- is cause for unease.
"My personal information is my own property, which I
should be able to encrypt and control so that I am in the driver's seat when it comes to
deciding who can have access to that information," one participant in the discussion
But as reasonable as such control sounds, it became clear
that few believe mechanisms can be found to guarantee privacy -- either by government fiat
or market-driven choice.
"Anonymity is dead," declared one speaker, noting
that the information already in circulation has overwhelmed the individual's power to
Another burning issue was the inequity that comes with lack
of access to broadband connectivity, including those left out economically and those who
live in areas where broadband will arrive late
The consensus seemed to be that the marketing imperative to
amass as many users as possible will ultimately remedy all inequities. Therefore, it is
better to suffer some growing pain than to formulate a policy that guarantees equal
The mix of intense concerns and a sense that nothing can be
done about where broadband is taking society seemed to challenge the notion that an
organization like The Broadband Forum could have much effect.
But the group's purpose isn't so much to generate solutions
as it is to help people understand the issues, said Mark Foster, chairman of the Forum and
a pioneer in wireless-broadband communications.
"We wanted a forum that would allow discussions like
this to take place," Foster said. "People need to be aware of what broadband is
all about and to have a chance to weigh the implications in a setting that's outside of
the day-to-day decision-making process."
The nonprofit group has partnered with another new
organization -- Washington, D.C.-based The New America Foundation -- on its agenda. New
America -- founded by author James Fallows to explore the social implications of
technology-driven change -- is funding research and various information exchanges in hopes
of providing a nonpartisan point of reference for policymakers.
"Today's discussion really demonstrates that
decision-makers need an outlet where they can express their concerns and get into
dialogues with each other that go beyond the business-level discussions they are normally
involved in," said Steve Clemons, vice president of the NAF. "We think a lot can
be done in the broadband area by working with the Forum to build on what was accomplished
The NAF and the Forum will have company exploring the
societal implications of broadband communications.
As reported in The New York Times, the Internet
Policy Institute has backing from various Silicon Valley competitors, including Microsoft
Corp. chief operating officer Robert Herbold and former Netscape Communications Corp.
president James Barksdale.
Its board also includes people from different political
camps, such as former Clinton administration official Ira Magaziner and former House
Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The IPI intends to generate research and to hold
conferences on the impact of the Internet on privacy, the economy, society, government and
"It's clear that we're heading into a future that is
as profoundly transformative as the industrial revolution, but at a much faster rate of
change," Foster said. "There's a lot more than business at stake here, and
people obviously want to get involved in thinking about where we're going as citizens, as
well as businesspeople."
Both the Forum/NAF alliance and the IPI are in the
formative stages, with agendas still to be worked out, officials said.
But it appears that the exploration of what broadband means
to the country and to policies will not be confined to discussions between lawmakers and