GT: What is the main task of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration?
Irving: The primary mission of NTIA is to advise the president, vice president and the secretary of commerce on information technology and telecommunications policy issues. Among those things are universal service and information haves and have nots, but that's just part of our portfolio. We also deal with how technology is used, who uses it and why they use it.
Across this country, across this government, we're talking about tens of billions, hundreds of billions of dollars put into information technology. You wouldn't spend a billion dollars in a company on information technology without doing beta testing.
So we're doing beta testing for governmental entities. Towns, localities, cities and communities that don't have the money for their own beta testing can use government by working in partnership with other localities and states, do some testing, do some demonstration projects and find out what works and what doesn't work, then have assistance disseminating that information.
That's one of the things NTIA is doing with the TIIAP grants program and we think it's an important goal, as well as connecting or working on connectivity issues.
Then there are public policy issues. When you do things like teaching across state borders, what are the licensing issues? When you do things like distance medicine, there are issues that come up in terms of insurance reimbursement, and licensing a doctor. You learn about those issues and you develop solutions by doing demonstration projects in local and state governments to see how the technology works in the real world.
GT: One issue NTIA looks at is making sure rural and urban areas aren't left behind in technological developments. What is the importance of this issue?
Irving: One of the things you find is that across income levels, there is a desire and a need for technology. What you also learn is that communities bring different types of resources to the task. Whether its a grant to a school in Harlem, to East Palo Alto, Calif., a Native American reservation or to a rural town in Montana, you get a sense that these technologies are vital to the economic, educational and medical opportunities the people in these communities are going to face.
What we are trying to do is find out how these things will work in the real world. We have learned that there are a lot of sets of demands -- that these people can and do use them in important ways.
Because the program is a year old -- our first grant went out the door a year ago and our first dollar really didn't hit people until eight or nine months ago -- it's too early to say what the lessons are except from the standpoint of the "demand" side. I can't tell you the "learn" side because we don't have that much empirical data yet.
But we have learned some things, such as how you can lump existing resources in a community, how you create public and private partnerships even in areas without much private industry.
GT: In testimony you gave before a congressional subcommittee meeting in Billings, Mont., last October, you mentioned that different regulations may be needed in rural areas vs. urban areas. Can you elaborate?
Irving: You've got to have a different level of attention because you're going to have more competition in urban areas than rural areas. I'm not saying that I know what the differences in regulations should be. What I am saying is that I do know that in New York City there should be 10 or 15 providers of telecommunications service and I may not have that same number in a Montana town. I also think it's going to be different in a rural state like Hawaii, which has lots of mountains