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Gore takes hype abroad
LIKE it or not, the United States Vice-President Al Gore - he of the Superman haircut and like-wise squeaky-clean image - has become a key player in the development of the telecommunications ideals lumped together under the tragically unbelievable term 'information superhighway.
In the US, Mr Gore has championed the Clinton administration's ongoing reform of the telecommunications sector. Not since the break-up of AT&T in the early 1980s when the regional Bell operating companies were spun off into independent companies has the industry in the US seen quite such dramatic change.
The break-up of AT&T was achieved through a court decree. It was a heart-wrenching business, affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of telecommunications workers, and was probably achievable only by court decree.
Since then, as competitive forces were felt, the industry became far leaner - whole legions of workers lost their jobs - and one heck of a lot meaner.
The problem that has arisen in the US as a result of the 'meaner' competition - and this is the chief area to which Mr Gore is addressing his attention toward reform - is that the courts have played an inordinately big role in the seemingly ad hoc shaping of US telecommunications policy.
The overall telecommunications environment appeared to be built on disputes: as telecommunications, cable and broadcasting companies slugged it out in court, the overall direction of telecommunications policy seemed to be shaped from one judge's decision to the next.
In January, Mr Gore made a landmark speech for the US industry outlining the Clinton administration's objective to get the courts out of the telephone business: to encourage private investment; to further open competition by allowing local phone companies, long-distance carriers, and cable television companies to play on each other's turf; and create a government regulatory plan that was more flexible and more responsive.
Since then, Mr Gore has maintained a high-profile position on all telecommunications issues in the US, including much domestic media coverage in promoting the information superhighway ideals. It seemed almost extraordinary that a vice-president should get so intimately involved in telecommunications, of all things.
But if Mr Gore's telecommunications attentions had been directed primarily domestically, then last week he took them to the international market, and in a big way, too.
In addressing an International Telecommunications Union forum in Kyoto, Japan, (most appropriately, Mr Gore travelled to Kyoto from the White House via satellite and a video-conferencing unit) Mr Gore talked extensively about the importance of private investment and flexible government regulatory roles in the building of the - get ready, new acronym coming - the Global Information Infrastructure (GII).
In a familiar position for the US, Mr Gore pointedly called for opening international markets as the best way for the GII to become a reality, to allow for competition to cater to the growing global demand information services.
In doing so, Mr Gore gave a good account of himself in geography, and telecommunications policies therein, mentioning among other global developments, the: privatisation plans for the Pakistan Telecommunications Corporation; the 80 different privatised telecommunications companies in 86 regions of the Russian Federation; the greater competition in the Philippines made possible by the broadening of access to international satellites; and the formation of China Unicom as a competitive network to the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications network.
It certainly does not hurt to have a US vice-president going in to bat for you, so the telecommunications industry worldwide should have no complaints about the attention it will be given at international political and economic forums in the coming year.
According to Mr Gore, cross-border issues that affect the development of the GII will be addressed when members of APEC and the OECD gather in February. A Summit of The Americas will focus on telecommunications and information infrastructures in December. The European Union will host the G-7 Ministers in Brussels, a conference that will also address common issues in developing national and global information infrastructures.
It is my guess that the term 'information super(hype)way' has had its day, to be replaced by - for what it's worth - the GII. And if Mr Gore has his way, you will probably hear more about it in the coming year than you ever wanted.
And as an aside, it is a shame Mr Gore did not mention Hong Kong in his Kyoto address - because the territory can take heart that it has an up-to-the-minute telecommunications infrastructure, an environment that is as competitive or more so than any country, and a regulatory framework that is, indeed, both flexible and responsive.