National Information Infrastructures: The Internet and Interactive Television

Larry Press

Conference on The Electronic Highway, University of Montreal, May, 1994

The idea of a "national information infrastructure" (NII) is in 
the air.  The Clinton administration feels the NII can "transform 
the lives of the American people" [4], and NII has made the 
covers of Time and Newsweek.{footnote 1}  The NII is old hat to 
members of the computer science community.  We have had the 
Internet, a {ital}global{ital} information infrastructure, for 
many years.  But Time Magazine is not focusing on the Internet.  
Time is interested in home shopping and movies on demand, not 
email and ftp.  

Two amorphous groups, let's call them the Internet community and 
the interactive TV community, are working on information 
infrastructure.  While there is similarity in what they envision, 
there are also significant differences in the two communities and 
their worldviews.  This article begins with an update on the 
Internet, followed by a description of developments in the 
interactive TV community.  We conclude with a comparison of the 
two communities.


I recently attended INET '93, the international conference of the 
Internet Society (ISOC), and Interop, the internetworking trade 
show.  It seems the internet is growing rapidly, becoming 
increasingly commercial, becoming increasingly global, and new 
ways of accessing the Internet, new "on-ramps," are developing.

Tony Rutkowski, ISOC Vice President, reported that the Internet 
is still growing like a weed.  It is now around 16,000 networks 
in 60 nations, with 1,776,000 hosts as of July, 1993.  The 
average growth rate for networks in 1993 has been 7.4% per month.

There are many signs of increased commercialization.  Most 
organizations which build IP internets (small i), register them 
with the Network Information Center, whether they connect to the 
Internet or not.  Rutkowski stated that registrations are growing 
at 12% per month, and roughly 75% of those are from business 
enterprises.  The Internet is positioned to provide the backbone 
which glues enterprise-wide and inter-enterprise networks 
together.  Many businesses have been worried about the lack of 
security on the Internet, but encryption and signature 
authentication is being designed and deployed.  One indicator of 
commercial interest is the fact that at least 4 business-related 
Internet newsletters began publication during the second half of 

The Internet is in transition from a subsidized experiment to a 
commercial service, which requires government policy changes.  
One of the INET '93 plenary speakers was Mike Nelson, Special 
Assistant, Information Technology, Office of Science and 
Technology, who reviewed the White House position.  He does not 
see the government building infrastructure, but does want it to 
fund both research and development on new technology and 
connectivity and demonstration projects in schools and libraries.  
Nelson also promised government policies to stimulate privately 
funded infrastructure development and deployment.  Significantly, 
he spoke of a global information infrastructure, not merely 
national.  I was encouraged by his presentation, and by the fact 
that someone who works in the Executive Office of the President 
has an Internet address and knows what "ftp" and "telnet" mean.  
For more on these and other aspects of the administration's NII 
vision and agenda, see [4].  

Nelson mentioned global infrastructure, and indeed the Internet 
is becoming more global.  Rutkowski pointed out that it now 
reaches 91 nations, and the international network growth rate is 
9% per month.  (At current rates, international connectivity will 
exceed U. S. connectivity around October, 1994).  Larry 
Landweber, another ISOC vice President, reported that the 
Internet could be reached by email from 137 nations as of August, 
1993.  Since Internet utilization is concentrated in the 
industrialized nations, ISOC conducts an annual workshop for 
networkers in developing nations.  This year 126 people attended 
from 67 countries.  After the workshop, they attended INET '93, 
integrating them into the social network as well.

There are also new ways to get onto the Internet.  At Interop, 
Zenith, showed a CATV/Ethernet box xx designed for the home user, 
and they have plans for related products.  LAN City, was also on 
hand with Ethernet over CATV.  Internet-access provider 
Performance Systems International (PSI) announced they would 
offer Internet connectivity to customers of Continental 
Cablevision.  I talked with Marty Schoffstall, PSI's chief 
technical officer, who predicted a rosy future for CATV access to 
the Internet.  He feels the Internet and cable company cultures 
are compatible -- both are "cowboys."  

Wireless Internet email has been available since 1992 from 
RadioMail, and McGaw Cellular, which has been purchased by AT&T, 
has promised to begin low-cost packet-switched cellular data 
service at the Fall Comdex.  Networking pioneer Paul Baran is 
developing a system for wireless connectivity over CATV.  Even 
ISDN has been resurected as a viable path to the office LAN from 
home or the road.  Forrester Research interviewed 50 Fortune-500 
companies, and after considering six alternatives, concluded that 
"[by 1995, ISDN] will be the first option to provide affordable, 
nationwide, near-ubiquitous, switched digital connectivty for low 
volume access." [1]  They advise carriers to "roll out [ISDN] or 
miss out."

There is even a new Internet "off-ramp."  At Interop, Carl 
Malamud demonstrated a way to bridge the Internet-fax gap.  He 
and partner Marshall Rose developed software which lets Internet 
hosts receive email messages (text or graphic), and automatically 
forward them to a specified fax phone number.  The message 
forwarder could do this as a free service (perhaps within a 
corporation or at a public library).  Alternatively, they could 
obtain revenue by charging a fee or by printing a paid ad at the 
bottom of the fax cover sheet.  There are already servers in 
several cities, and several companies are buying adds.  

Finally, bulletin board systems (BBS), which began with hobbyists 
and community information providers, are becoming commercial, and 
are connecting to the Internet.  Boardwatch Magazine, which 
covers BBS, has a regular Internet section, and their annual 
conference has an Internet track.  In a reader survey, they chose 
100 top BBS, and 21 of them offer Internet connectivity or email 
[9].  These are not toy systems.  Several have over 10 Gbytes on 
line, and they average 25 dial-in lines.  The largest has 35 
Gbytes, and receives 5,000 calls daily on 280 lines.  Many BBS 
specialize, with topics from community information, software, 
Christian values, pornography, and senior citizens to Batman.  

Jack Rickard, Boardwatch Editor and Publisher, estimates that 
there are 53,000 publically-accessible BBS in North America and 
92,000 world wide [6].  This includes 22,000 Fidonet BBS, which 
have sophisticated store-and-forward communications between them.  
When asked about the Internet, Rickard says, "when somebody can 
put an ftp-server/BBS on the Internet for a couple thousand 
dollars, it will certainly change the network."  It will also be 
interesting to see how being networked changes the BBS.


For years, there was discussion of an NII by the year 2015 or 
2020.  The phone companies would extend fiber from the center out 
-- first inter-city, then to local exchanges, and finally to the 
curb or home.  In the interim, we could connect to our digital 
networks using modems or ISDN.  Judging by the rate of ISDN 
deployment, the phone companies were not in a big rush.

The Cable TV industry has accelerated the process.  Cable TV 
began as a means of getting signals to outlying areas.  
Programming came to a head-end, where it was broadcast over 
coaxial cable in trunk lines to feeder lines to drops to homes.  
Amplifiers were located at quarter-mile intervals along this 
network.  By 1992 cable ran by 97% of U. S. households and 
connected 61% of them {footnote 2} (see Table 1).  

To increase capacity, reliability, and picture quality, the cable 
companies have been converting trunks from coaxial cable to 
optical fiber.  It costs only about $50 per subscriber to run 
fiber to neighborhood nodes of about 1,500-2,000 homes.  The next 
step will be the extension of fiber to nodes serving 2-500 homes.  
The industry estimates that the cost of converting the U. S. 
cable plant in this manner is about $20 billion, compared to $2-
400 billion for a comparable rebuilding of the telephone plant.  
The major cause of this savings is that coaxial cable running to 
the homes would not be replaced.  

At some point, entertainment and cable companies realized this 
hybrid network, coupled with improved computing and compression 
technology, would soon be capable of delivering digital movies.  
If they could provide movies on demand from the safety and 
convenience of the home, they could take over the estimated $12 
billion [8] annual video-rental business{footnote 3}, justifying 
much of the needed investment.  Throw in a share of the $70 
billion catalog shopping and $4 billion video game markets [8] 
and the $2 billion already sold through TV shopping [7], and the 
"interactive TV" community was born.

Video On Demand

During the last year, dozens of interactive TV alliances have 
been formed between entertainment, cable, phone, and computer 
companies.  They speak of many applications, but focus first on 
video on demand.  There have been several market tests in which a 
digital system is simulated using operators who manually mount 
tapes on VCRs, but automatic, digital testbeds are now under 
development.  As an example, let's look at one of the most 
ambitious trials, set for Orlando Florida in 1994.{footnote 4}

Orlando is served by Time-Warner Cable, a unit of Time-Warner 
Entertainment, which has a lot of information to sell.  
Approximately 4,000 customers are expected to come on line early 
in 1994, with applications including movies on demand, 
interactive games, shopping, and distance learning.  

Silicon Graphics (SGI) is designing the video-on-demand hardware 
and software, and Jim Barton, Vice President of their Media 
Systems Division described the project.  The head-end hardware 
will be a cluster of 14 SGI servers on an FDDI ring.  Two of the 
machines in the cluster will function primarily as session 
managers and transaction processors, and the others will deliver 
MPEG-compressed video.  The video servers have 1.2 Gbit/s 
backplanes, and can have up to 24 processors, 12 Gbyte memory, 
and several hundred Gbytes of disk.  The FDDI ring will be used 
for control and coordination within the cluster.  Perhaps 50 
popular movies will be on-line at all times, with, the top 10 or 
so on multiple servers.  Another 5-10,000 movies will be 
available on robot-accessed tape, with a few minutes lead time 
for mounting.  

Small video segments will be transferred from the video servers 
to an AT&T ATM switch.  Scientific-Atlanta, a leading cable 
communication company, will build the hardware which integrates 
the head-end with conventional analog equipment.  There will also 
be two 1.5 Mbit/s channels running back to the head-end.

The network will terminate in TV set-top boxes designed by SGI.  
The design was foreshadowed in a SIGGRAPH paper by SGI Chairman 
Jim Clark [2].  Clark speculates on a $200 (mid 1990s) box with 
MPEG decompression, encryption, display-device independence, and 
built-in graphics and image processing capability.  The initial 
prototype will be a modified Indy workstation with a 100 mhz MIPS 
R4000 processor and a Scientific-Atlanta add-in board for 
decompression and analog signal processing.  There will be no 
storage, and relatively little memory.  Bootup and client 
software management will be handled at the head-end, reducing 
system cost.  For those who wish to go beyond the basic box, 
there will be PCMCIA slots.  In an earlier column [5], we asked 
whether the home machine would be "compuvision" or "teleputer."  
SGI clearly thinks it will be a "teleputer."

There are other interesting video prototypes under way.  For 
example, Oracle is assuming a less intelligent set-top box, and 
designing a video server using an nCube multiprocessor system.  
According to John Kish, Oracle's Senior Vice President, Business 
Development, they will test it in Omaha with U. S. West as a 
partner.  Kish says Oracle plans to port their video-server 
software to many machines, including SGI's, but they have decided 
on a 512-processor nCube machine for this test.  (Oracle 
president Larry Ellison is a major investor in nCube, but Kish 
insists the selection was made independently).  Kish expects the 
512-processor machine to serve 3,000 video streams, and says the 
technology scales well.  He envisions serving 100,000 video 
streams in a few years, and says the cost of capital equipment 
must be around $200 per stream for movies to pay off.  Oracle and 
SGI have very different architectures -- isn't competition nice?

Shopping -- the Other Application

Shopping has also caught the attention of the interactive TV 
community.  It is highlighted in popular press accounts, and when 
executives discuss financial justifications [7].  Many of 
the interactive TV alliances have prepared short, insipid, 
concept-demo videotapes showing hypothetical interactive 
shopping.  They portray virtual travel through malls -- scanning 
the shelves till you find something you like, then zooming in to 
rotate the object, try different colors, bicker about the 
purchase with your spouse (a la Ricky and Lucy), and buy it.  The 
products demonstrated are things like vases or dresses, never 
tractors or staple goods.

If that is what home shopping becomes, I won't spend much time 
browsing in the video mall.  But, if the NII were to increase the 
efficiency of the market for a variety of goods and services, it 
would have significant economic impact (as it already has in 
capital markets).  

Theoretically, an efficient market provides information about 
goods and services, and rational, well-informed consumers make 
optimal decisions.  However, Herbert Simon won a Nobel Prize in 
economics for demonstrating that such perfection does not exist 
in the real world.  Information is not perfect, and it costs.  
Furthermore, shoppers have finite cognitive skills and time, so 
they do not optimize, they merely "satisfice," making decisions 
which satisfy their constraints.  The NII could increase market 
efficiency by providing both better information and analysis 

Let us consider relatively large purchases first, for example an 
auto, appliance, or piece of office or industrial equipment.  
(Items you might review on-line, and eventually purchase in 
person).  One could imagine a comparative shopping service (more 
like a database than virtual travel) with information on product 
specifications, prices, delivery times, and guarantee terms.  
There could be video presentations by manufacturers, independent 
product reviews, comments by satisfied and dissatisfied customers 
(with their email address), and discussion groups among consumers 
and producers.  There could also be information to allow 
comparison of local distributors or service providers.  Such 
information would ease Simon's first market limitation.  The 
second constraint, the consumer's finite rationality, could be 
relaxed with tools for discovery, analysis and presentation -- 
agents, models, and expert systems.

The NII also has the potential to increase market efficiency for 
staple goods.  I am more curious about the effect of the NII on 
supermarkets than on boutiques in malls.  It would be convenient 
to ask "what will it cost me to purchase the following grocery 
list from various stores near me this week."  Or to see current 
prices for a specific computer or program.  This sort of purchase 
will be concluded on line, and the line between retailing and 
distribution may shift.  I really want to know what it will cost 
to get the items on the grocery list to my home, not which store 
or stores to buy it from.  The same goes for software (delivered 
electronically), jeans, and much of what I purchase.

While the interactive TV community seems to have taken the lead 
on shopping, it might be a better fit with the Internet 
community.  Interactive TV people seem to envision mass markets 
with relatively few vendors.  The temperament of the Internet 
community points more toward a bazaar than a mass market, with 
easy entry and many vendors.  The Internet community also has 
experience with the sorts of information retrieval and analysis 
tools which will underlie the electronic market.

All of this is a bit glib.  The interactive TV community is 
starting trials in 1994, but widespread rollout will take many 
years.  Technical innovation and standards are needed, and these 
will be followed by a long rollout period, which will begin in 
affluent areas.  The non-technical questions are more difficult.  
For example, will there be alternative comparison shopping 
services for a class of item?  Will comparison shopping services 
charge consumers, be funded by vendors, or be provided as a 
common good.  The latter possibilities raise questions of 
regulation of goods markets, analogous to present regulation of 
security markets.  What steps would be taken to insure accuracy?  
What would be the legal liabilities and procedures?  Who would be 
able to list products?  

Time will also be needed for the established constituencies to 
wage battles.  For example, the cable TV industry has been a 
catalyst, but the phone companies remain a major force.  They are 
very large and have extensive experience with massive, switched, 
reliable, automated, transaction-oriented systems.  AT&T is 
selling ATM switches and video servers, buying related companies, 
and talking about linking local cable providers.  The phone 
companies are also testing "asymmetrical digital subscriber 
lines," a technque for delivering 1.5 mbit/sec compressed video 
(VCR quality) over up to 18,000 feet of copper wire.  About 80% 
of U. S. homes fall within 18,000 feet of a switching office, and 
even more businesses do.  (Cable TV reaches few business 
locations today).  Slicing the pie will take time.


With apology to C. P. Snow, the Internet and interactive TV 
communities have different cultures, and like Snow's scientific 
and liberal arts cultures, they do not communicate so well.  
There was little mention of interactive TV at the INET '93 
conference or Interop, and little mention of the Internet at the 
major interactive TV gathering, Seybold's Digital Media 
Conference.  The following are some differences between the 

Applications.  The bread-and-butter interactive TV applications 
are movies and home shopping.  The initial Internet dream was 
support for a community of scholars, of communication between 
people of common interest.  The focus has been on text messaging 
and information retrieval.  These are the applications which 
formed the first visions.  

Users.  The interactive TV community is aiming for users in their 
homes while the Internet began with university and research 
workers, and is rapidly spreading into business and schools.

Data Types.  Interactive TV is being optimized for video from the 
start, and the phone companies control audio communication.  The 
Internet deals mostly with text.  There are a few Internet image 
archives, and experiments have begun with audio and motion video, 
but they are still limited to a few hundred sites and very crude.  

Terminal Device.  Interactive TV is being designed around low-
resolution television sets which are viewed from a distance and 
controlled using a remote channel-selector.  The Internet began 
with Teletypes, but has really been built around desktop 
computers.  Both may use voice input in the future.

Geographic Scope.  Interactive TV is aiming initially at the U. 
S., while the Internet is global.

Media.  Interest in interactive TV has spurted with concentration 
on cable TV, and the Internet has mostly used the telephone 
company.  Both are developing wireless options, and in the end, 
both will use all three.  

Access Ethic.  This may be the most important difference.  The 
interactive TV community is used to centrally produced and 
broadcast programming, while free-access, with every user a 
portential publisher, is a basic tenet of the Internet.

Economic Orientation.  While interactive TV community speaks of 
education and community information, potential profit is clearly 
their prime motivator.  The Internet began in the education and 
research community, and only recently began worrying about 
charging and commerce.  There is still a large Internet 
constituency focusing on education and community service.  The 
Internet community debates the issue of usage-based charges; the 
interactive TV community assumes them.

Information Valuation.  The Interactive TV community is based on 
the sale of copywritten information for royalties, and the 
Internet grew from the academic community which often values 
information sharing.

Rollout Schedule.  Interactive TV trials are just begining.  If 
successful, broader rollout may begin in 1995, and it will be 
many years until a significant number of households and 
businesses have interactive connectivity.  The Internet is 
already in production.

I must admit to a degree of discomfort with the interactive TV 
community.  After all, it is headed by the folks who bring us 
Cops, reruns of Gilligan's Island, and commercials for 1-900 
numbers and "workman's compensation" lawyers.{footnote 5}  Do we 
want them in control of the deployment and application of a 
technology that may have as much impact on society and our 
worldview as the clock or electric light?

Regardless of who is in charge and what their motivation is, NII 
technology will have profound effects.  For example, the Internet 
was inspired by the lofty goal of support for scholarly 
communities, not profiteering.  Even in its nascent state, the 
Internet has had remarkable success in this dimension.  I see it 
in my own work, where daily collaboration with remote colleagues 
would be impossible without the Internet.  On the other hand, my 
time is finite, so I have significantly reduced professional 
collaboration and social interaction with people at my physical 
workplace.  My productivity has been enhanced markedly, but my 
daily working relationships and organizational loyalty have 
shifted.  The shift from local to remote is more pronounced when 
we consider the mass media.  We know Johnny Carson better than we 
know our neighbors, and we are touched more deeply by televised 
events than those on our own blocks.  

Working and playing in cyberspace will change our relationship to 
time, abstraction, and people.  It will change our values, 
perception, and addictions.  Regardless of who builds the NII, 
let's keep our eyes open.


                   1975 1980 1985 1990 1992

TV households       70   78   86   93   93

Percent of TV       13   23   46   59   61
households served

Homes passed        23   35   65   86   91

Percent of TV       33   45   76   92   97
households passed

Table 1, Cable TV Deployment.  Cable TV is growing rapidly, and 
converting trunk lines to optical fiber.  This network may be 
used for movies, shopping, and other services. [3]


1.  The NII was on the cover of Time on April 12, 1993, and on 
    Newsweek's cover on xx.

2.  The statistics and estimates in this section were taken from 
    the congressional testimony of Richard Green, President of 
    CableLabs [3], a research consortium serving the cable 

3.  Twenty percent of this revenue is from late charges on 
    overdue rentals, which would not occur with video on demand.

4.  Two-way CATV tests date back to the early 1970s.  One of the 
    earliest was also in Orlando, conducted by Orange Cablevision 

5.  Do you know how to fix your TV set?  1) unplug the set 2) 
    grasp plug in left hand 3) snip it off with a scissors.


1.  Batson, J. and Hyland, J. L., "Don't Laugh, It's ISDN," The 
    Network Strategy Report, vol 7, no 7, pp 2-13,  Forrester 
    Research, Cambridge, MA, June, 1993.

2.  Clark, J., "A Tele-Computer," Proceedings of SIGGRAPH '92, pp 
    19-23, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1992.

3.  Green, R. R., Testimony before the Subcommittee on 
    Technology, Environment, and Aviation, Committee on Science, 
    Space, and Technology, U. S., House of Representatives, March 
    23, 1993.

4.  NTIA (the National Telecommunications and Information 
    Administration), "The National Information Infrastructure:  
    Agenda for Action," anonymous ftp from, 
    directory /amo/civicnet, or, directory /npr.  
    Those without ftp access can request an email copy by sending 
    a message to  In the body of the 
    message put:  send niiagenda.

5.  Press, L., "Compuvision or Teleputer?" Communications of the 
    Association for Computing Machinery, September, 1990.

6.  Rickard, Jack, and Funk, Gary, "The International FidoNet -- 
    22067 Bulletin Boards with an Attitude," Boardwatch, August, 
    1993, pp 66-80.

7.  Zinn, L, De George, G., Shoretz, R., Yang, D. J., and Forest, 
    S. A., "Retailing will never Be the Same," Business Week, 
    July 26, 1993, p. 54-60.

8.  Zoglin, Richard, "The Info Highway," Time, April 12, 1993, pp 

9.  --, "Boardwatch-100, Readers' Choice BBS Contest Results," 
    Boardwatch Magazine, September, 993, pp 68-80.

10. --, "Status Report on Two-Way Testbeds," Cable Television 
    Information Center, Washington, D. C., May, 1973.


If you are interested in the latest developments in the 
interactive TV world, three highly recommended newsletters are:

   The Inside Report on New Media, which was just formed from the 
   merger of two excellent newsletters, Bove and Rhodes' Inside 
   Report on Multimedia and Publishing Technologies and Tom 
   Hargadon's Green Sheet.  800-222-4863. 

   Seybold's Digital Media reports on business and technical 
   issues in the convergence of entertainment, publication 
   communication, and education.  800-325-3830.

   Multimedia Monitor, which covers interactive media, and has 
   particularly detailed coverage of most relevant conferences.  

You can also meet and hear leading executives and technologists 
from the converging interactive TV, entertainment, publishing, 
and computing companies at Seybold's annual Digital World 
Conference, 800-433-5200.  

Increased Internet commercialization has inspired the founding of 
four industry newsletters:

   The Internet Letter,, 800-638-9335.

   The Internetwork Advisor,, 800-999-snci.

   The Internet Business Report,, 516-562-5882.
   The Internet Business Journal,, 613-747-6106.

For a bi-monthly magazine on the Internet: Interop World,, 203-226-6967.

If you are interested in tracking the global growth of the 
Internet, subscribe to Matrix News,, 512-451-7602.

For information on the Internet Society, the INET '93 Proceedings 
and audio tapes, or INET '94, contact the Internet Society,, 703-620-8990.  The INET '93 proceedings are also 
available on the ISOC Gopher server.

For a CD-ROM with all of the speaker's slides and papers, and 
information on the commercial exhibits at Interop, contact 
ImageOnLine, 415-917-2100.  Interop audio tapes are available 
from Audio Archives International, 800-747-8069, 818-857-0874.

Boardwatch, is {ital}the{ital} magazine for the BBS community.  
Like BBSs (and the Internet), it walks a line between hobbyist 
enthusiasm and idealism and commercialization.  It is always fun 
to read.  800-933-6038,, 

For a thorough discussion of BBS technology, history, 
applications, philosophy, the Internet and Internet-BBS 
connectivity, see Bernard Aboba's eclectic new book "The Online 
User's Encyclopedia:  Bulletin Boards and Beyond," Addison-
Wesley, Reading, MA, 1993.

Forrester Research surveys Fortune-500 companies, and publuishes 
the results and their analysis in a monthly Network Strategy 
Report.  They publish similar Software Strategy and Computing 
Stragegy Reports.  It is like having a consultant on retainer.  

For information on Carl Malamud's Internet-fax gateway, send a 
request to

Silicon Graphics is interested in talking with potential 
developers for the Orlando trial.  415-960-1980.

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