FOR years the ``information superhighway'' has stretched out like the yellow brick road - a beguiling phrase for a promising fantasy. Now, the once-upon-a-time concept is about to be wired up.
A federal court in Virginia has overturned a law prohibiting telephone companies from providing television programming over their lines. The new ruling tentatively permits all the Baby Bells to become, in effect, cable TV networks as well as phone companies, making it worth their while to build the fiber-optic networks that must pave the information superhighway. The ruling is still subject to appeal - still pie in the electronic sky - unless upheld.
On the same day, however, Continental Cablevision announced that by a definite month (January) in a definite area (Cambridge, Mass.) it will begin to offer customers a link to Internet, a computer network made up of more than 10,000 smaller networks with an estimated 15 million to 20 million users in more than 50 countries. For $70 to $100 a month, the subscriber will gain access to an embarrassment of riches - the Library of Congress, the National Weather Service, local bus schedules. Inquiring minds will be able to put themselves on the list for newsletters on topics ranging from Shakespeare to quilting.
In the beginning, a modem will transmit the services through a personal computer. But within a year or so the television set will become the subscriber's learning station.
Those who have lived through the dreams and disillusionments of television will be cautious about the information superhighway. Plugging into the University of Pisa for information about the Leaning Tower, a tester of Internet was regaled instead with a fairy tale about a witch in a tower. An author of Internet guide books has warned, ``We currently have one lane and a lot of men working.''
The unpleasant prospect remains that many of those fiber-optic channels could be used for interactive movies, home-shopping services, and endless refinements of Nintendo.
Still, unlike the yellow brick road, every traveler on this highway can determine his or her destiny. Moving data at a speed of 20 million bits a second and with a larger capacity than ordinary phone lines, the new venue, for those who choose, can bring unprecedented traffic in knowledge, and possibly even a share of wisdom.