You are here

Remarks of Assistant Secretary Irving at the Networks for People Conference

December 08, 1998

Remarks by Larry Irving
Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce

at the

Washington, D.C.
December 8, 1998


Good morning. For those of you who traveled to be here, we welcome you to our nation's capital.

It is great to see you all, and it is a particular honor to greet the TIIAP Class of 1998 -- the 46 newest TIIAP recipients. We are looking forward to the next two days. This conference is an important opportunity for our newest grantees to interact with grantees from previous years, and for all of us to learn from each other. We are hoping that the panel discussions and breakout sessions will shed light on what is working, and what is not, across the country. We also hope to learn what models we should fund and what policy issues must be resolved.

As many of you may already know, the first TIIAP grants were awarded in 1994. TIIAP is part of the vision of President Clinton and Vice President Gore to ensure that all Americans were part of the burgeoning Information Society. During these past four years, TIIAP has been committed to supporting innovative and exemplary projects that help bring new technologies to underserved areas. These projects serve as models for using information infrastructure and information technology in the public and nonprofit sectors.

Over the past decade, the telecommunications and information technology industries have undergone astonishing changes. We've seen a transformation from telecom networks primarily carrying voice to networks primarily carrying data. Because of the development of the Internet, pagers, wireless devices, satellites, and computers, we have seen the creation of millions of jobs and a change in our culture and even our vocabulary. Today, we are witnessing in greater numbers companies merging with or working with competitors, as everyone looks for new ways to grow and to capture the promise of the Information Age.

TIIAP is growing and moving, too. And, most importantly, this movement is community-driven, not Washington-driven. TIIAP's goal has always been to go beyond simply giving access to basic information or connecting people to public institutions. TIIAP projects are designed to weave an intricate web that will result in stronger communities, better services, and greater opportunity for people across this great country and beyond.

That is why this conference is called Networks for People. We never want to lose sight of what I believe really motivates each of us - to make life better for our neighbors, our children, and our parents.

Folks will be talking to you during the next two days, but I hope that you will get out to see the demonstrations. For example, I hope you will have an opportunity to see how Penn State's TeleHomecare project uses ordinary telephone lines to provide video-teleconferencing to homebound people with diabetes. This system allows patients to stay at home while communicating with a clinician about their progress.

I also hope you will learn about some of the TIIAP public safety projects that use information technologies to help public safety workers and officials save lives and property. Fire fighters, for example, are benefitting tremendously by incorporating new technologies. Nationwide, fire departments respond to almost two million fires a year - one every 16 seconds, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the Fire Department is responding more quickly to fires by using computers mounted in each city fire truck. These computers display maps showing the fastest route to the scene of an emergency, and also show schematic drawings of the building where the emergency is occurring.

A lot of planning - by different organizations -- went into this project. The Winston-Salem Fire Department worked closely with the Institute for Transportation, Research and Education at North Carolina State University to record the exact locations and capacity of fire hydrants, speed limits, and other traffic rules, and other information that could delay emergency vehicles racing to a fire. The Fire Department also developed software to determine in just seconds the shortest route from any fire station to any address in the city. What's happening in Winston-Salem can be replicated around the country.

During the conference, you will have an opportunity to hear about and discuss other innovative projects that are extending the horizon, creating new, non-traditional points of access and new ways of using information technology. A central question to keep in mind over the next few days is: how do we make such networks more useful, more accessible, and more central to the life of a community?

In answering this question, we at NTIA have found that the problems and solutions in one discipline are frequently relevant in others. While TIIAP supports projects in five application areas - community networking; education, culture, and lifelong learning; health; public safety; and public services -- we have discovered that different application areas often share the same end users or are working toward common goals. We need to share what we learn, so that we don't make the same mistakes and so that we can build on our successes.

The breakout panel sessions have been organized to discuss issues that cut across the TIIAP application areas. For example, there are common challenges in transmitting sensitive information across networks shared by those in health care, law enforcement, social services, and electronic commerce. All these disciplines can learn from each other.

Part of NTIA's job, as the administrator of the TIIAP program, is also to collect and disseminate information about what works and what doesn't work in developing, operating and sustaining network-based projects. We didn't want to put grants on the streets without also putting information on the streets. One of the panels will involve a discussion about new learning and training centers. We will explore how these new conceptions of learning compete with, or complement, more traditional institutions. Another panel will look at the home as the locus for service delivery. Tomorrow, we have a panel of experts who will share how technology affects the way organizations are structured. They will tell you about how organizations, in both the nonprofit and private sectors, are becoming "the network."

Today and tomorrow, you will hear from the people who are developing and sharing best practices in networking technology. You'll hear from experts working with state-of-the-art, next generation technologies that promise to improve the quality of today's networks. The challenge will be yours -- to think about and incorporate the Next Generation Internet or advanced wireless technologies into your projects. Think about the advantages and opportunities presented by broadband technologies and streaming technologies. Ask experts how advancements in networking and increases in portability and mobility can enhance your mission.

We have structured this conference with the hope that it will truly be interactive in the most basic sense of that word. Many of the demonstrations and presenters are TIIAP grantees; others are outstanding leaders in their fields. While the panelists and presenters will have an opportunity to discuss challenges and solutions, your participation is also critical. Through the give-and-take between presenters and the audience, we hope to learn what obstacles we need to overcome, what models to fund, and what policy issues need resolution. I therefore encourage you to ask questions of your presenters, challenge their assumptions, and engage them and your fellow attendees in this important dialogue. We've intentionally put in frequent breaks in the program; use this time to talk to each other. Our guess, and our hope, is that you'll find some of these conversations among the most valuable part of your participation.

All of the projects represented here share a common goal: better, more effective ways of enabling people to use the National Information Infrastructure (NII) to benefit their communities. There are so many ways to connect now - through a commercial Internet Service Provider, through cable modem, or through wireless. We can connect at the office, at school, through a community organization, in libraries, or in cyber-cafes. Choices are there for the consumer.

Yet, in spite of all the new ways and sources of connection, we still have a digital divide. We still have a country where there are many people who can't get on-line. We need to make them in the Information Revolution. It's not just the technology and the access; the other part of the equation are the people using the technology and going to the access centers.

NTIA, back in 1994, released one of the first comprehensive measures of national connectivity in a report called Falling Through the Net. Just this year, working in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau we took another look in Falling Through the Net II. We found that, while more Americans have become connected to the Information Superhighway, some segments of our society are purchasing and using computers more than others. Our data demonstrated that we now have even more serious pockets of "have nots" - low income Americans, minorities, and young families in rural America and central cities are falling further behind.

On the surface, we have made progress. Since our first survey in 1994, the year TIIAP was inaugurated, we have seen PC ownership increase 51.9%, modem ownership (that provide connections to a network) has grown 139.1%, and e-mail access has expanded by 397.1%. These are astounding numbers. But, when we more closely analyzed these statistics, the findings revealed that Blacks and Hispanics are lagging even further behind their White counterparts in their levels of computer ownership and on-line access. Also, female-headed households are significantly less likely to own a PC or have on-line access than two-parent households. And, people living in our central cities and rural areas also lag behind those in urban and suburban areas.

So, what can we, those of us gathered here today, do about this?

We need to work together to develop strategies for extending our information infrastructure. We need to think about the long-term sustainability of TIIAP and similar projects and programs - particularly those in our inner cities and rural areas where resources are already stretched among competing needs. It is our belief that TIIAP projects can help lessen the digital divide because they provide models for using resources more creatively and more efficiently.

One of the unique aspects of the TIIAP program is the matching requirement. It has led to some interesting partnerships. During the conference, we hope you'll learn about innovative partnerships that may also work in your community. Partnerships between the public and private sectors and across application areas are key to ensuring that all segments of our society are connected.

We also need to work together on the policy front - from international issues, privacy, intellectual property rights, domain names, copyright, electronic commerce, to safeguarding the integrity of the Internet, increasing its bandwidth, and protecting children on-line. If these issues don't touch you today, they may tomorrow. For example, many of the projects you will hear about today create information resources on a shared network. Protecting the privacy of the individuals served by such networks is of the highest importance.

Let me also stress the importance of what you are doing, not only for our local communities, but also for our global community. Two months ago, some of you joined us at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference in Minneapolis, which involved 147 countries from all over the world. A number of TIIAP projects were there to demonstrate to other nations what you are doing with new technologies. We received such an enthusiastic response, and so many questions about TIIAP projects, that we have decided to hold an international conference this spring to bring together out TIIAP recipients with the international community. This will allow other countries to learn directly about your accomplishments, and will also enable us to learn what our international counterparts are doing. I hope to see you all back here then.

It is critically important that we share and export the lessons we are learning. Our nation's economic health is increasingly dependent on the well-being of other countries. We have to take advantage of opportunities to help our neighbors around the world strengthen their communities through new technologies. If telemedicine can improve access to health care on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana, imagine how that same technology could impact the many small villages scattered through rural China, South Africa, and the former Soviet Union. If small, rural businesses in Appalachia are benefitting from marketing their goods on-line, imagine how many farming villages in Latin America could use the Internet to export their crops.

We must also remember that telecommunications and information technology is more than about commerce and finance. Every day, a major publication or newspaper reports on developments in electronic commerce and its contribution to our nation's economy. We can talk about consumer spending on the Web, or the number of routers sold by Cisco Systems through the Net, or today's estimate of Bill Gate's fortune. These figures are all impressive. But, what is really impressive is the way these information technologies can enrich our personal and cultural lives.

Thirty years ago, Robert Kennedy reminded us that:

Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product, now, is over eight hundred billion dollars a year, but that GNP - if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. . . .

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud to be Americans.

Bobby Kennedy got it right in '68, and you are getting it right today. You understand the importance of improving our health care needs. You understand the excitement of schoolchildren when they see real-life depictions of the pyramids on the Net, or when a child on an American Indian reservation can see pictures of New York. You know how thrilling it is to view your favorite piece of art on the Net, or hear your favorite song on Real Audio. You understand that new technologies are about the ability to participate directly in a political poll or discussion, at the click of a mouse. None of these are part of electronic commerce or included in our GDP, but every one is reason why should be excited about the Information Revolution and what we are doing here today.

These are the developments that go to the core of what makes America truly great, and you are the people who are showing us how to do it. Thank you for your vision, your energy, and your attendance here today and tomorrow.