THE nation's fast-growing information corridors need a ``highway patrol,'' observers say, as communications and entertainment companies rush into alliances.
These alliances, such as Bell Atlantic's planned merger with cable television giant Tele-Communications Inc., are forcing national and local officials to grapple with a complex issue. What regulatory changes are needed, they ask, to ensure that the information superhighway meets the public's needs as well as commercial imperatives?
Many experts agree that removing the walls that keep phone and cable monopolies from competing on each others' turf is part of the answer. But other key issues remain unresolved - and have received relatively little attention so far.
Public access is ``one of the most important issues'' relating to data highways, Stanford University's Eric Roberts told the recent annual meeting of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in Seattle. ``It's a lot easier to talk about universal access than it is to achieve it in any meaningful way,'' said Dr. Roberts, who is the group's president.
At stake is the degree to which the United States becomes a nation of information haves and have-nots, advocates say. The information infrastructure is envisioned as linking American homes, offices, schools, and other institutions to enhance economic competitiveness. Yet much of the recent corporate dealmaking appears aimed at the ``couch potato'' market for home shopping and movies-on-demand.
AMONG the concerns voiced at the conference: Will rural and low-income urban areas get a second-class information infrastructure? Will the use of computer networks be simplified and developed so more people can take advantage of them? Will cable companies, with their control of program content and distribution, limit the information sources available to customers?
``We didn't let Ma Bell control information. Why should we let these alliances [do so]?'' asks Sonia Jarvis of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Cable customers should have the option to break out of the one-way TV mode altogether and use the wire for two-way individual uses, argues Daniel Weitzner, counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group in Washington. These uses might include anything from a video ``visit'' with a business associate across town to searching for information stored in a library across the country.
In testimony before a Senate antitrust hearing last week, Bell Atlantic chairman Raymond Smith sought to allay critics' worries. He said the merger will give ``our customers a whole new level of choice, control, and convenience.'' The two companies plan a $15 billion, five-year investment to create a ``full-service network'' with two-way capabilities.
Mr. Weitzner says that, although Mr. Smith ``said all the right things,'' there needs to be legislation to ensure that information deliverers make good on such promises. If there is insufficient competition, price regulation may be necessary too, he says.
Communities, meanwhile, are taking grass-roots steps to achieve the public-service goals of the information highway. Here in the Seattle area:
* The public library offers access to Internet, a nationwide computer network.
* Nearby Snohomish County plans to link communities electronically. If a school district has only one teacher of Japanese, for example, students at several schools could take the class by video.
* Local cable TV providers are required to offer public-access and government-access channels that offer a window into local politics, religion, and arts.