Peter Pringle's America: Take your poor unplugged masses

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The Independent Online
IF EVERY road has a median line, usually white on minor roads and yellow on the interstate, what colour will the line be in the middle of the Super Information Highway? Red, perhaps?

Last week, several consumer and minority groups, including the oldest black civil rights organisation in America, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, complained that the new road was bypassing the poorer neighbourhoods. The telephone and multi-media companies, who are about to install the cables to connect homes to the information highway, appear to have been 'red-lining' - that is to say, drawing a line around the poor and deliberately excluding them.

The fear of consumer and minority groups has always been that the new communications road would create an information elite. Instead of having a widespread democratising effect, with many more people having access to, say, free library services on their television, the future would bring a division between the rich and the wired versus the poor and the unplugged.

Red-lining is a common practice across the country. You find it in banking, where people from poor neighbourhoods cannot get loans for a car or house, and in insurance, where people who live in high-risk neighbourhoods have trouble getting covered.

When the social surveyors figured out who might be the most likely to want to 'interact' with a small box on top of their television set - to gain access to 500 channels, to watch a movie, buy a dress, consult the Encyclopaedia Britannica, or simply order a pizza - the answer was affluent whites in middle-class suburbs. These suburbs are also where the new computer-literate folks and their hi-tech teenagers live. They already know about interacting with computers and see technology not as a hurdle but as a tool.

So when the builders of the Super Information Highway began planning where to go, they decided to stay within well-mapped territory. They planned to construct their pilot roads of fibre optic cables in ways that bypassed the blighted neighbourhoods. There, as far the new companies are concerned, people can stay watching the box where interaction means, at most, changing channels.

The white suburbs, not the inner big cities, are where the super highway phone companies are touting for business. That is where they will find customers for the new highway who previously spent most of the dollars 4bn doled out on video games each year, the dollars 12bn for video rentals, the dollars 65bn on residential telephone services, and the dollars 70bn on catalogue shopping.

How did word leak out that the Info Superpike was becoming the Great White Way? The Centre for Media Education, a watchdog group in Washington, sponsored a study to examine a dozen plans by four regional phone companies. It was based on applications they filed to build advanced communications networks in 'selected areas' in Chicago, Denver, San Diego, California and Portland, Oregon.

The telephone companies admit that their trial areas are in affluent neighbourhoods; business, after all, is business. But they say they have no intention of staying out of poorer neighbourhoods. Consumer group concerns are 'unfounded and they are irresponsible' to suggest such a thing. Everyone will have an equal chance to use the services - eventually.

But when? Consider earlier communications revolutions. It took 39 years for cable television to reach half of all US households, 11 years for radio and two decades for colour television. Maybe the information highway can be installed more quickly, but some worry that the era of the 500-channel television, with all its interactive services, will probably take about 20 years, too.

In past times, the monopoly 'Ma Bell' telephone company was strictly regulated like the electricity company. A licence to operate was granted in return for fulfilling social obligations such as universal access. But these niceties may no longer apply in the new competitive markets. The cost of putting in the cables is high; why should the telephone companies invest in areas which will give them a low return? The attitude of the telephone companies tends to be: 'the market is in the public interest'.

There are those who argue that it does not matter whether the affluent residential neighbourhoods will be plugged in first, nor how long it will take for the poorer neighbourhoods to catch up. Who wants 500 channels anyway? But there will be more than movies and video games on the information highway. Participants will be able to hold two-way video links with their doctors and teachers - a real boon for those in the lower-income neighbourhoods. Consumer groups are pressing for public hearings in local communities and guarantees from the telephone companies of additional disclosure about their plans.

Without regulation - and that means new legislation - a widening of education and income gaps is inevitable. There is a high road and a low road on the information highway; it is not yet clear which America will choose.

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