Imagine if all our highways and byways were toll roads, and no streets or bridges were connected to schools and neighborhoods that couldnt afford to pay for them.
That may sound absurd. But when it comes to the infrastructure of the future, the cables and wires that carry information, precisely that scenario is unfolding in many communities around the country.
Thats why the City of Pittsburgh has made public access a focus of negotiations to extend its cable franchise agreement with AT&T Cable Services formerly TCI of Pennsylvania. Both sides deserve the communitys encouragement in this process.
The cable industry has changed dramatically since TCI first won the right to serve the citys population 15 years ago. At that time, the futuristic vision for the cable line snaking its way into your house was that it would give viewers access to 500 channels, which given the state of most television programming, seemed an empty promise.
But cable isnt just about television anymore, and neither is this deal. AT&T didnt buy TCI because it was smitten with The Cable Guy. It bought TCI because in the new economy, cable companies are a veritable gold mine.
Advances in technology have made it possible for virtually everything that counts as information to be delivered on the same fiber optic network that today brings us an inexhaustible supply of The Brady Bunch. That means that your cable company can also become your phone company and your Internet provider. One wire will allow you to surf the web in one room, watch TV in another and hold a videoconference in a third.
This is part of the same technological revolution that we hear about every day on the news, the one that is minting millionaires by the fistful and rewriting the rules not just of business but of education and community as well. The new economy and to some extent, a new social order, are being built on a fiber optic infrastructure.
It really does matter, therefore, who gets connected and who doesnt. In the future, it is entirely likely that those people we now politely call the "information have-nots" will be the new poor. Not surprisingly, the new poor bear a striking resemblance to the old poor. The information superhighway isnt of much use to people who cant afford to pay the toll.
As a result, communities that want to stay competitive in this "byte-eat-byte" world are changing how they look at deals like the one Pittsburgh is currently negotiating with AT&T. Pittsburgh controls the property and pathways where cable lines run. Those pathways are public resources they belong to the community. In granting a private company access to them, Pittsburgh has a right to expect that the best interests of all its citizens will be served.
To that end, as part of its agreement with AT&T, Pittsburgh has proposed that the company connect 140 city, school, library and museum buildings through a high-speed communications network called an "I-Net." Pittsburgh has further proposed that AT&T provide free cable modems and Internet access to 100 community groups scattered throughout the city. An important part of the proposal specifies that AT&T build the I-Net without passing on significant costs to the residential customer.
The value of this proposal is obvious. It will allow Pittsburghs schools to offer their students state-of-the-art resources and learning opportunities. It will allow our libraries and museums to offer the best resources available. It will allow community groups to provide critical services more efficiently.
And most of all, it will make access to the best of the information age available to everyone in this community and not just a privileged few. Pittsburghs schools, libraries, museums and neighborhoods should not be allowed to end up on the wrong side of what some observers call the "Digital Divide," where prosperity is a function of bandwidth.
There will be a cost, of course, in protecting Pittsburgh from such an outcome. But the profits that AT&T stands to gain as it upgrades its system in the city ultimately will dwarf the comparatively small expense of extending that system to 140 community buildings and, through inexpensive modems, to another 100 community groups.
To their credit, AT&T has indicated they are willing to consider the citys proposal. It would be a sensible display of good corporate citizenship. The telecommunications giants have expressed a desire to make Pittsburgh a showcase for the best their technology has to offer, a laudable goal we should all hope they achieve.
But Pittsburgh should also be a showcase for the best that community has to offer. In real communities, you dont build a road to the future that is accessible only to a few, because that quickly becomes a road to nowhere.
The Pittsburgh I-Net will give the citys schools, museums, libraries and neighborhoods a road to opportunity in the information age. That is a goal worth embracing, for our community and the companies that serve it.