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 surrounded by water and is far from any population center.
The point I'm trying to make is that each state presents its own problems and their solution should be local solutions. The federal government should be flexible enough to have an overarching governmental standard that permits the states and localities to solve a problem in the way that is best for those states.
GT: What role should the local and state governments play in the emerging information infrastructure?
Irving: I work for the president of the United States, who is a former governor. He believes strongly that this should be an equal partnership role. This has to be because it's a national and international infrastructure. There has to be federal involvement and there also has to be state involvement, and the ultimate solution should be left to the state.
We think that there's got to be a partnership, and we don't think that it's one of those in which a senior partner should be the federal government, necessarily. There's got to be a federal role that ensures it won't interfere with national commerce or interstate commerce.
GT: What kind of infrastructure do you envision nationwide in the next 10 years?
Irving: I envision an infrastructure that's going to be beyond what we can imagine today. Consumers will have an incredible amount of choice as to how they get telecommunication service, including what telecommunication service and the price they want to pay.
I think you'll have as many choices in terms of telecommunications as you have in cold remedies today. If you walk into any grocery store or any drug store, you have a hundred different choices -- Advil, Sine-Aid, Sinutab, Efidac ...
Telecommunications will become that type of commodity. It will be based on what you want. What we're trying to do is to assist people in getting there in things like connecting the nation. If most people know what the choices are, then it promotes choice through public policy and can be a resource center for minorities, urban dwellers, the rural, senior citizens or the disabled.
That's what NTIA can bring to the table -- being a catalyst for the state and local government question and for the questions of those people who want to be part of this evolution, but on their own initiative might not be a part of it. You can also be a catalyst for those in society who are not traditionally players in the telecommunications marketplace.
GT: How can we reach the point where we have all these choices, combined with equal access and universal service?
Irving: You have to have coherent, comprehensive and thoughtful public policy. You have to have public-private partnerships and you have to reach out and communicate to people about the importance of this technology. Because when you talk to them about this they understand it. If you cover public policy first off you're going to get some of this. Usually there isn't going to be competition because of income level, economic disparities or geography -- you have to make a little bit more of a special effort. That's one of the commitments of this administration.
A "teletopia" is an overused term but it is possible. It's only possible if we have enlightened thought, we do the right thing contemplatively and if we reach out to all of us.
GT: What can governments learn from one another, regardless of level? How does this contribute to developing the information infrastructure?
Irving: I talked about that in terms of beta projects, where we're using a demonstrations model. I met with a senior executive from a state setting up telecommunications technology state-wide, and I gave him some ideas of some of the projects we're doing here and some phone numbers of people to call who have already done some of the things that they are going to do. Why should they reinvent the wheel? There are people already spending millions of dollars doing that. Let's piggyback on their lesson.
But not all the lessons will fit concisely. What they learn in Pennsylvania may not fit for New York; what they learn in New York may not fit for Montana, but some of the things will be common problems and there will be common solutions. We can save people money and time by making all kinds of connections and being the conduit for that kind of interaction between the states, cities and localities.
GT: How does this fit in with the Commerce Department's mission?
Irving: The Commerce Department's mission is to serve as a resource, to serve as a center of economic development and to serve as a way of promoting our nation into the 21st century. This is wholly consistent with it. This nation can only survive if we stay on the cutting edge of technological trends.
Let me tell you one thing that I've told people time and time again. There will be 760 million people living in Africa in the year 2000. There are two telephone lines per 100 people in Africa. There are five telephone lines per 100 people in India and China. If we can find cost-effective ways to bridge the telecommunications gap in this country, we can find cost-effective ways of getting telephony into parts of those countries.
What we learn here, we can export to Africa, China and India. Half the people alive on this planet today have never used the telephone. We can do good by the people in the rest of the world. We can do well by U.S. companies by getting the technologies and understanding them and learning lessons here.
Building a national infrastructure is really the first step in making it work and learning a lesson is part of the process of making a global infrastructure.
The TIIAP Web address is: