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Information super 
highways and the future of communication

By Greg Sanders

In 2009, few people still doubt the importance of the Internet. Some of the promises made by the Web’s proponents 20 years ago still seem far-fetched, but in many ways the Web has delivered on its promise.
Adoption rates for Web technologies are high in the most economically developed countries, and uptake is trickling into the developing world. Useful Web applications have followed, in some cases enabling substantial gains in worker productivity and consumer satisfaction. And as we are increasingly aware, the Web has diverted much of the attention that was once held by traditional media including print, radio and network television.

But there’s a nagging feeling in the technology industry that the Web we know and love is no more than the tip of a very large iceberg. Could we be on the verge of something that would make today’s Internet seem almost trivial?

Joe Mambretti of the International Center for Advanced Internet Research at Northwestern University believes that the Internet’s future value will far exceed its past usefulness. Mambretti and his colleagues are exploring the potential of “super-broadband” that could dramatically improve communications, research, education, manufacturing and medicine.

Super-broadband supports much higher performance and capacity of Internet traffic, allowing high-resolution digital media, for example, to connect research labs, governments, schools, hospitals and workplaces around the world. As a mass communications medium, ubiquitous super-broadband would allow viewers to tune into events and content from an almost infinite number of sources, in real time or plucked from archives, possibly marginalizing traditional news media even further.

While visionaries explore potential uses of super-broadband, others remind us that the Web’s most basic uses remain largely untapped today due to limited access in many small towns, rural areas and less affluent urban neighborhoods—areas where almost half our country’s population lives.

How can public policy promote the development of next-generation Web technologies and encourage uptake of existing Web resources? Some public officials (including Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn) have worked tenaciously to bridge the digital divide with some success. However, they understand that additional efforts are required. For example, Mambretti notes that a key to promoting access to advanced communications requires reforming the thicket of micro-regulation that was developed for phone services in the 1930s. This type of regulation tends to strangle innovation and growth of the Internet.

Proponents argue that Web communication is to today’s economy what transportation technology was during the last century: a core engine of growth, efficiency and competitiveness. Yet transportation, among other sectors, still receives far more attention in the public policy arena. Mambretti recommends a few simple steps that could improve the information infrastructure:

Designate a single agency to coordinate advanced communications policy in the state.
Encourage “condominium fiber” infrastructure that can be used by multiple Internet service providers, rather than having each provider implement its own infrastructure, much as condominium owners share a building yet retain control over their individual units. Mambretti compares the current, inefficient situation to every trucking company building its own road into a city.

Remove everyday obstacles such as the almost insurmountable approval process for running fiber lines beneath railroad tracks in Illinois.
Streamline the process of acquiring easements on telephone poles and beneath streets.

Take advantage of existing “dark fiber” lines—unused yet available fiberoptics that have excess capacity.

These and other improvements could make the difference between an Illinois that is ready to compete in the 21st-century economy and one that struggles to keep up.

As Information Architect for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Greg Sanders serves as coordinator for the Chicago Area Housing Web site, the Illinois Data Exchange Affiliates and the Full Circle community mapping and planning project. Greg was previously IT Director for the Cleveland Housing Network and Senior Programmer-Analyst for Penske Logistics. He has managed Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) grants in both Cleveland and Chicago. Greg holds a BA in political science from Oberlin College and a Masters degree in mass communications from Kent State.

Category: Essay

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