Information Highway or Digital Ditch?

Keith A. Vogt, California Technology Project

Hardly a day goes by without the media bringing us more news about the "Information Superhighway." Proposed mergers between media giants to create this mythical highway seem to be the announcement of the month. Then a few months later the media reports the giants donÕt like each other after merger. Even the giants in cable, telecommunications, and entertainment are having difficulty building the digital highway. But given time, a giant may find the right David and we'll start enjoying the much hyped Information Superhighway.

I've just returned from the annual Techno-Lemmings trek to the ocean of bits and bytes in Las Vegas. Dozens of vendors (some giants and lots of Davids) are promising the high speed digital highway is a short trip away. This year's COMDEX show (estimated attendance of 190,000 plus) had dozens of vendors promising access to the Internet with a world of information awaiting the touch of your fingers to keyboard. For just $x a month you can start cruising the Net. In comparison, last year I saw just two vendors providing Internet access...obviously, a hot market for business. While I have been a strong advocate of using the Internet to provide educators, students, and parents access to the mushrooming electronic library, I do have some concerns about the rush for schools to "get connected." I travel the state and hear numerous educators exclaim, "We got our 56kb (or T1) line connected to the net. We're ready to go." I ask them, "How many users can you support with that line and what's your plan for growth? What about staff development, overhead costs? Do you have an Acceptable Use Policy?" Many times the reply is silence or, "Uh, I donÕt know. We'll figure it out later."

When building a new home, office, or school, we plan for the number of phones, electrical outlets, and light fixtures we need and what kind of equipment and support it will take for the number of users we anticipate. The same kind of detailed planning is necessary for accessing the Internet: a well-designed plan that describes the educational foundations for connecting to the Internet; the necessary staff development support; technical training; long-term technical upgrades; an analysis of building oneÕs own network or purchasing it from a vendor(s); and the costs relating to these issues.

I have seen very little long-term planning by educational institutions on the development and expansion of the telecommunication infrastructure and the costs associated with that development. Somehow weÕve succumbed to the hype and we've come to believe the Information Superhighway is going to be California schools' freeway to success. Various technical plans (primarily limited to hardwired connections) have been presented as guides to connecting to the Internet, but none has addressed the other options (cable, satellite or wireless) or the total costs of implementing such a plan statewide.

I think itÕs time to visit a rest stop and find a map (or create one) to make sure we're on the right road. It certainly won't be a free-way, regardless how many protest to the contrary. Do we have free phones, electricity, or gas (or textbooks)? Some way, somehow, we will all pay. If we don't prepare a well designed and thorough map for education's telecommunication future, our expectation of educators and kids in schools traveling the Information Superhighway may end either in gridlock or find us in the digital ditch.

Keith A. Vogt is Director of the California Technology Project. He can be reached at P.O. Box 9050, Costa Mesa, CA 92628, phone (714) 966-4268, or on the Internet at [email protected]