Wild Wild Web 

The World Wide Web meets the Wild West

In my line of work, it's terribly easy to take my Net connection for granted. I use it every day, often for rather mundane tasks like updating stale web pages and answering email.

But I was reminded of the astounding complexity and power of the Internet at a conference on Monday hosted and moderated by Sen. Conrad Burns, entitled "Corralling the Wild Wild Web."

Besides Senator Burns, who's been lauded by Wired magazine as one of very few legislators who really "get" the Net, industry representatives from Netscape, AOL, and Microsoft were on hand, as well as a handful of other technologists, economists, and Net-savvy attorneys.

A myriad of topics were introduced, but the central focus of the day was the extent to which government should be involved in the Internet, especially with regard to rural access issues. Rural access is especially salient in Montana, a state in which, as Burns put it in his keynote address, "there's a lot of dirt between light bulbs."

Throughout the conference, I was reminded of the good the Net can bring: 5th graders visiting the great museums of the world, rural surgeons aiding each other in diagnoses, astronomers and other scientists collaborating on projects requiring resources in widespread locations.

Still questions remain about who gets access, how much it will cost, whether rural communities will get fair treatment from telephone companies, and how much regulatory control the feds should have over the Internet.

Though the nuances -- and the underlying agendas -- of the different speakers varied a bit, one thing was clear: Government is seen as a problem, not a solution, with regard to the majority of Internet issues.

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association, attended the conference through a satellite hook-up. This spring, Valenti made headlines in the controversy over the television rating system, but his message on Monday was decidedly forward looking.

"The Internet," he said, "believe it or not, is still in its infancy. We need to let it grow freely for now." He warned, however, "we'll eventually need rules."

According to John Montjoy, senior vice president and general counsel of BBN Corporation, that eventuality may already be upon us. BBN was the firm responsible in 1969 for the underlying architecture of the precursor to the Internet, ARPANET.

"A decade ago, self-governance worked fine, but that traditional model is now beginning to fail. It's as if everyone in California moved to Montana and registered to vote," Montjoy said.

While that frightening prospect may overstate the point, the fact remains that the net has become a cacophonous, unruly place. Is that cause for the feds to step in?

Not necessarily, said James Halpert, an attorney for multiple ISPs and the Direct Marketing Association. Halpert maintained that government should regulate narrowly, stepping in to protect consumers from "bad actors" -- brand new techie lingo for crooks -- who are engaged in fraudulent online schemes.

Perhaps, then, the more proper role for government is in subsidizing the extension of high-quality, low-cost access to rural areas such as Montana. Indeed, this goal was one small part of the massive Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996.

That law provides for a trickle of money into high cost states that need cash for telecommunications infrastructure upgrades. Montana, with fewer paying customers per square mile, falls into this high-cost category.

Unfortunately, the much greater burden is on the telephone companies such as U.S. West, which obviously stand to achieve financial rewards by providing the best service to those areas with the highest potential revenues. In other words, places such as Phoenix, Ariz., with millions of potential paying customers in a relatively small area, will be the first to be blessed with new super-fast data networks.

It may take three years or more for the same technology to be enjoyed on Montana soil.

Some at the conference seemed to believe the solution to this inequity is governmental regulation -- an enforced spreading of the wealth. But Joe Zell, president of U.S. West's data networking division, countered that it wasn't a foregone conclusion.

"Regulation causes U.S. West to slow development of high speed networks, and adds cost to our customers," Zell said.

So are we Montanans doomed to sit out here in the sticks, struggling with legacy phone networks while much of the rest of the nation makes use of uber-networks with download speeds that are 30 times faster than what the average user is accustomed to today? Perhaps not.

Two important startup companies, Teledesic and Cyberstar, may have a revolutionary access solution for Montanans and every other rural area on the face of the globe. Satellites. As early as summer 1998, Ron Mael of Cyberstar claims that he'll be able to provide massive bandwidth access to end users via the existing satellite network for a reasonable rate.

Daniel Kohn of Teledesic has more ambitious plans: nothing less than 288 new satellites in low earth orbit, capable of serving 64 megabit-per-second downloads to any location on the planet. In other words, the software that takes four hours to download over your standard 28.8 modem today would take about seven seconds from start to finish.

It's my hope in the meantime that more legislators recognize that high-speed, high-quality network access is as important to their constituents as bridges, roads, and other infrastructure.

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