Red Lines on the Info Superhighway

June 10, 1994|By TRB

Washington -- The structure of the data superhighway is ''the civil-rights issue of the 21st century.'' This opinion comes from the United Church of Christ, part of a coalition of liberal groups that recently landed on the front page of the New York Times with a study alleging ''electronic red-lining.''

The study looked at neighborhoods where the Baby Bells are testing fiber-optic ''video dial tone'' service. It sensed a recurring theme of affluence and whiteness and concluded that the superhighway is bypassing the underprivileged. The study's sponsors, among them the NAACP, want ''anti-red-lining'' rules in the epic telecommunications legislation now forming in Congress.

There is certainly much to dislike in the emerging data superhighway (including the name -- hereafter: the ''dataway''). And there are things about it that will indeed harm the urban underclass. But whether ''red-lining'' is among them, and warrants a liberal crusade, is another question.

There are two basic visions of the dataway. One is the ''cornucopia of edification'' vision: In the world of tomorrow, you will download interactive cello lessons, join in a global seminar on arms control, take a virtual tour of Incan ruins. In the alternative scenario (the ''cornucopia of narcotics'' vision), the dataway is a tool by which corporations will pump the contents of Blockbuster Video into the nerve endings of Americans so long as they retain enough sentience to interactively pay their bills. Plus home shopping.

The first vision seems to be assumed by the authors of the red-lining report, and is held also by dataway boosters in Congress. But it's the second vision that drives the ''market forces'' these boosters would unleash to build the dataway. (The bills in Congress would free the Bells, cable companies, MCI, etc., to compete in everything -- local and long distance, voice and video. Since video requires broad bandwidth, these companies would be enticed into laying fiber, thus building the dataway.)

Now, if the dataway works as it should, the two visions can co-exist. People will face nearly infinite options, via data vendors large and small, high-minded and low, and will be free to choose their fate. The question behind the red-lining debate is: What choices would underclass teen-agers make? Virtual calculus or Mortal Kombat?

First of all, teen-agers in general will tend to take fluff and trash over education. Parents, too. In any neighborhood, somewhere around 95 percent of any dataway subsidy would go for light entertainment. (An anti-red-lining law amounts to a subsidy to lay fiber in economically unattractive areas, financed by an implicit tax on fiber in upscale areas.) Second, if the ''underclass'' label is accurate, the numbers may be even worse in the inner city. The term connotes a culture whose values don't foster efficient self-improvement.

Of course, there are stories about inner-city kids who would be great scholars were scholarship not ridiculed by their peers. Maybe some covert virtual calculus is just what they need. But there's also the perverse possibility that the dataway will pull some underclass kids further under. In the old days, television was a cultural unifier. The dataway will be a fragmenter -- like cable TV, only more so. It will segregate us into micro-communities, envelop us in our distinctive obsessions. The obsessions of some underclass teen-agers aren't good.

In a sense, the bills in congress already contain a ''red-lining'' provision. They would expand the ''universal service'' fund that now helps keep phone service broadly affordable in spite of the high costs of serving, for example, rural areas. (In a competitive environment, the Bells will have trouble keeping rates low for such areas.) The money will come from all corporate players -- in effect, a tax on dataway construction. Presumably, rural interests will try to steer the proceeds toward rural fiber while (judging by ,, the red-lining report) civil-rights groups try to steer it toward urban fiber.

The inner city definitely needs the money, but are living rooms really the place where it will most help the underclass? How about the public schools instead? Granted, they spend money badly, but they don't waste 95 cents of each dollar, as an anti-red-lining subsidy probably would. The spending needn't stop at free dataway hookups for schools (already a popular sound bite). Urban schools need books, teachers, desks, walls. They're a disaster area, the most vivid disgrace in American government.

The fiberization of America ,9l brings that rare and sublime moment in public policy: the birth of a cash cow. We can tax fiber without any group feeling much pain. Of course, this would slow dataway construction. So what? Whatever its redeeming features, the dataway will encourage cultural division at a time of divisiveness. It will probably increase income inequality, too. Presumably more kids will use the dataway educationally in Hyde Park (if only under parental pressure) than in the Robert Taylor Homes.

With or without red-lining laws, the dataway will bring economic benefits to Americans in inverse proportion to their need for the benefits. Nationwide construction delays aren't something that liberals need mourn. A heavy fiber tax, given mainly to inner-city schools, would be an uphill battle in Congress. But at least it's a goal worthy of the civil-rights movement. Subsidizing teen-agers who watch TV is not.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written this week by Robert Wright.

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