GT: You've been working on information superhighway initiatives in the New York Legislature to ensure urban residents have access to online services. What can such access bring to traditionally underserved populations such as rural and inner-city areas?
Vann: It brings the potential of equality, in that very often the inner-city and rural areas are both neglected. This is where you have the largest numbers of "have-nots." Rather than being at a further disadvantage, we're able to force the powers that be to combine the infrastructure and the hardware to provide the opportunity for inner-city youth and rural youth to be brought up to equality with other citizens around the state and around the world. It's very critical that we not allow the superhighway to bypass both the rural and inner-city communities.
GT: Why is it critical for everyone to be able to have access to this? What is the importance of this issue?
Vann: It has implications both in terms of education, health and quite frankly, individual initiative, entrepreneurship and small business opportunities. It's the new way, or will become the new way, of doing business.
Its employment opportunities are unlimited. It's hard to imagine communities being able to survive unless they are wired up and online. It's a necessity, not an option.
It's like a revolution and we must be a part of it. Like the Industrial Revolution. This is the new Industrial Revolution, so to speak. We'll be a part of it and grow with it or be left behind if we are not a part of it.
GT: Recently, the U.S. Commerce Department released a survey which found a disparity in the ownership of home computers. People in the suburbs own computers at a much higher rate than people living in inner cities and rural areas. What is the significance of this kind of data?
Vann: It highlights the urgency of pursuing this "equality" in opportunity. I would hope that the state Education Department and the [university] regents make it their highest priority to make computers available to every classroom without fail, and to work with a lot of the industry people to make computers available for the home so that it becomes an ongoing process to make sure they are available in the schools and then, secondarily, in the community.
When they cannot be available in the home there should be places in churches or community centers where people can make use of the computers until they can acquire one individually.
GT: Is there a substantive difference between having access through
a public library, church or other public institution vs. having it from your home?
Vann: Availability. You would want every family to have access to one, but the reality is it will take awhile to get there.
Until that time occurs, you want them available in the community within reasonable access so that they can maintain skills and be able to communicate based on their need, whether it's a school need or a career need.
I see it in stages. It should be made available at different hubs in the community as we begin to find ways to get families to have access to computers.
GT: Would you tell us about some of your proposals on these issues in the New York Legislature?
Vann: The most immediate one is the Nynex settlement case that was resolved recently. [Ed. note: the Regional Bell Operating Company is setting aside money and services in exchange for regulatory changes.]
My office was involved in it because I chair the Corporation, Authorities and Commissions Committee, which has jurisdiction over telecommunications. We participated in that settlement, as did a broad range of people including industry, before the Public Service Commission (PSC). One of things we advocated was the diffusion fund.
We finalized part of that agreement, and they set aside $50 million that will be used in "hot spots" around the state. Basically, they are areas in the rural and inner city that have been overcharged in the rates over a period of time and neglected of basic infrastructure. This diffusion fund can be used to provide adequate infrastructure and fiber optics in those areas so that they will have an opportunity to move along this highway.
GT: How close is this to implementation?
Vann: The settlement was agreed upon by the PSC and the first meeting of the division [was held in October]. We'll begin to set the ground rules and how they will go about making this distribution. It's real and it's now. We're very, very pleased that we're able to do that.
We're looking for every creative way that we can to make sure that universal service is being defined.
Is there a lifeline with the utilities to provide for poor people? Policy makers must be very cognizant with these issues and must be very determined that they would not allow the rural and poor areas to be left out. It must be a very conscious decision with policy makers.
GT: Regarding implementing this, do you see different needs for inner-city areas and rural areas? Are there different needs or different things that need to be taken into consideration?
Vann: The only difference is the sparsity of the population in rural areas as compared to the density in city areas. It's probably more costly to provide the infrastructure in rural areas because of that fact. But nonetheless, there is some innovation and some creativity involved in how they do it.
The needs are the same, but one would be more costly than the other because the sparsity of the population -- how widespread it is in a given area. They have the need for health care and teleconferencing techniques used for the superhighway that are used for education, library and health. The same needs are there.
GT: What role do you see for different layers of government in building and managing telecommunications infrastructure? What role do they have in moving initiatives such as this along?
Vann: To some effect, we've already been doing this because we've had the authority to do that in the absence of any federal legislation. That legislation could take away some of the initiative we have taken.
We had been lobbying so that they do not preempt some of the local initiatives and so forth. We have a heavy stake in what the final results will be.
GT: The lack of federal legislation puts the local governments and even the state governments in a bind in that you want to move, but you can't move too far.
Vann: Well, I think we should move as far as we can while we can and work it out based on what the final legislation turns out to be. I'm hoping it will provide adequate discretion for the state and local governments to implement based on the needs of any given state.
GT: How do you see relationships between different entities, such as state and local governments, developing in creating an information infrastructure? How would a school district, which is locally funded and run, relate with the state?
Vann: It's not so much that they will be working with the state as working with the industry. AT&T, Nynex, and cable companies are looking to bury the competition. With that competition arise opportunities to network with the various local institutions.
I think we'll provide opportunity to come online if we can be organized locally and know exactly what we want. I think an excellent opportunity for churches is to have financial resources and the coordination and administration. I think they could tie into industries that can make headway in the communities.
GT: What do you envision the Information Superhighway being five or 10 years from now?
Vann: I think almost everything that we do will be changed to some extent because of technology. We're seeing it already with the beepers and the cellular phones and the e-mail. This is not going to go back, it's going ahead.
The way that we actually behave is going to be seriously modified as we adjust to the technology taking off. It's growing everyday, it's changing everyday. We must be focused and realize that we have to be online, we have to become computer literate, we have to understand the jargon and we have to be able to get on the superhighway. It's like the Industrial Revolution -- the same basic impact, the same basic concept and everyone has to adjust to that one way or the other. So we'll either be on it and move into the future or be left off it, be left behind in the past and remain the have-nots in society. *