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''If you're not hands-on,''
warned Mitch Kapor of the Electronic Frontier Foundation,
''all you're going to get is a handout.''

Nonprofit clan looks ahead at info highway

Originally published in Current, April 11, 1994

By Steve Behrens

Three months after he spoke to the elite of show biz and telephony in Los Angeles, Vice President Gore appeared before a ballroom-full of nonprofit leaders March 29 [1994].

The topic was the same each time: the information superhighway and what's on it for us.

Photo of Gore speaking at summitGore said he gives education a high priority on the highway, and supported an unspecified ''open access'' policy that would let anyone transmit as well as receive. But off-stage, while the Administration and Congress were moving decisively to re-regulate cable and the telcos, they had barely a paragraph in the same bills dealing with the needs of the public-interest sector.

House action is pending on a bill, approved by Energy and Commerce Committee on March 1, which would order the FCC to ''reserve appropriate capacity for the public at preferential rates on cable systems and video platforms.'' A different but similarly sketchy provision appears in the corresponding Senate bill, which is not yet out of subcommittee.

Those provisions respond to a proposal by America's Public Television Stations (APTS), backed by a band of nonprofit advocates that has met for months in D.C.

Now, with a turnout of 600-plus at the Public Interest Summit this month, with stars like C. Everett Koop and Ralph Nader and many lesser-known teachers, museum folks and environmentalists, the advocates can point to the grassroots interest that often moves policy in Washington.

''We hit a home run,'' says Andrew Blau, director of the communications policy project at the Benton Foundation, which organized the event on Gore's request.

Administration figures were ''suitably impressed by the strength of the turnout, the range, the new voices, new faces, the fact that these people were flying in from Seattle and Oregon and Texas and Colorado, and were not the usual suspects they see every week,'' says Blau.

He contends that it's ''a Washington-centric mistake to believe that legislation is the be-all and end-all.'' It's also important that thousands of nonprofits across the country be stimulated to plan how they could use the infostructure to deliver real public services and ''get up to speed on the highway.'' This heightened interest would affect policy later on.

APTS President David Brugger says the summit speakers said ''a lot of the right things that needed to be said'' to policymakers. ''The question is whether they were heard.'' He didn't hear any Administration staffers talking about reserved capacity for nonprofits. ''There was still the sense that the marketplace was going to provide all things.''

It will be the technologically capable interests that get to design the highway, said summit panelist Mitch Kapor, the Lotus 1-2-3 software inventor who now heads the Electronic Frontier Foundation. ''If you're not hands-on,'' he said, ''all you're going to get is a handout.''

Gore naturally was the star of the summit, which was carried in part on C-SPAN and 30 public radio stations. As in past speeches, the veep referred to wonders of telemedicine and other services that would improve the lives of Americans, particularly the rural and poor.

Promoting universal service by keeping rates down so that the highway serves the broadest possible public is the ''most important step'' that government can take, Gore said.

He spoke up for ''open access'' as well: assuring that any highway user can ''send as well as receive information,'' and forbidding network operators from restricting program competition.

''Education, after the facilitation of democracy, is the simple most important function of the information infrastructure,'' Gore told a questioner.

Aside from urging carriers to wire all schools and libraries, however, the Administration has done little to put schools and nonprofits on the highway.

The Administration ''has not been forthright enough'' in supporting the nonprofit capacity provision in the House bill, said Andrew Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project.

A major backer of the summit, Woodward (Woody) Wickham, v.p. of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, drew a straight line between fundamental highway-design decisions and the future of U.S. democracy and quality of life. ''The cost of building an inaccessible, antidemocratic communications highway will be much higher,'' he said, ''than the cost of building the one this country deserves.''

Wickham followed a day of panels and speeches, including one by a pubcaster. Robert Larson, president of WTVS in Detroit, said the information superhighway should ''amplify'' the role of community organizations, as pubcasting often does.

A sampling of other remarks:


. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: "Public right of way" provisions are under consideration for big telecom bills in both houses, 1994.
. Later news: Inouye's bill supports 20 percent reservation.

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