A Subnational Perspective on Building Public Information Infrastructure: Insights from the FARNET/NSF States Inventory Project on Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure in the 50 United States

Heather E. Boyles <heather@farnet.org>
Federation of American Research Networks

J. Keith Harmon <harmonjk@osc.edu>
Electronic Commerce, Law, and Information Policy Strategies


Although a "national information infrastructure" (NII) has been the focus of many public policy efforts, particularly in the United States, the reality is that public infrastructure is being built at a much more local level. The FARNET States Inventory Project has been engaged in collecting data about the planning and provisioning of networks designed for delivering education, health care, and other government services to the public and for the internal use of state and local governments.

This paper will examine these efforts for planning and provisioning this subnational public information infrastructure, how they relate to the NII, and how the experiences of local and state policymakers may relate to local efforts in other countries.



The national agenda for public information infrastructure development in the United States

The national information infrastructure (NII), as conceived in National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action , released in 1993 by the Information Infrastructure Task Force of the Clinton administration, defines the NII as "a seamless web of communications networks, computers, databases, and consumer electronics that will put vast amounts of information at users' fingertips." It has become apparent that the Internet is the practical model for the NII and, by extension, the GII (global information infrastructure).

The principles and goals outlined by Agenda for Action include the extension of universal service to the information age. This includes ensuring the widespread availability of access to information infrastructure; promoting, through investments in research and development, technological innovations and new applications; promoting interoperability among networks; ensuring security and reliability in the network; and supporting a number of other principles. The benefits driving this agenda include, first and foremost, economic benefits, but the document also seeks improvements in health care, education, and the operation of government itself.

The NII: Agenda for Action, as a document of the U.S. federal government, contemplates the development and deployment of such an infrastructure by the private sector with significant investment from government. At the time of the Agenda document, the federal government estimated investment in the NII at $1-2 billion annually. Since then, however, budget priorities have changed. One of the overriding principles of federal budgets over the past few years has been to shift increasing amounts of responsibility for the delivery of public services to the states -- and the states have, in turn, begun to shift responsibility to local governments. That shift can be seen in the area of public information infrastructure as well.

Local information infrastructure in the United States: concepts and current developments

Information infrastructure initiatives are occurring at many levels; hence we see discussions of the global information infrastructure, local information infrastructure (LII), and even Municipal Information Infrastructure. Advocates of local information infrastructure have defined it as "an analog at the local level of the constellation of development issues surrounding the notion of the NII." 1 "Local" is, of course, open to interpretation and can be used broadly to mean states, counties, municipalities, or neighborhoods. In practical terms, it is an approach characterized by "bottom up" instead of "top down" development.

Not surprisingly, many of the driving factors behind LII planning and development are the same as those of the NII. That is, economic development is a key driver, both in attracting new businesses to a state or region and in maintaining the competitiveness of existing businesses and providing a conduit for training and education in a locality. 2 The economic development driver shows up continually in surveys of policymakers at the state and local levels, as it does in a survey of essential issues by the National Association of State Information Resource Executives.

The goals and target communities for LII are also similar to the NII goals outlined in the Agenda for Action document. Education, health care, and the use of information infrastructure for access to and delivery of government services constitute the great majority of information infrastructure projects underway at the state and local level. This paper will look specifically at a couple of projects underway in education and health care.

Education is one area where state and local governments are likely to have a much greater impact than the federal government. The provision of public primary and secondary education in the United States is primarily in the hands of state government education agencies and local school boards. Although federal education funding increased after World War II, more recent budget priorities have sent much of the authority and funding for education back to the states. Local school districts further fragment authority of primary and secondary education, in particular because funding of schools still varies widely depending upon the local school district's tax base. 3

The NII and the LII: coordinating national and local-level policies, initiatives, and agendas

NII: Agenda for Action contemplated the need for "coordination" between federal government NII initiatives and state and local governments. In particular, it anticipated the need to coordinate federal, state, and local regulatory policy. Regulatory policy is one of the main sources of uncertainty and disconnect between the plans of the federal government and the implementation of those plans at the state and local levels. For example, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 , provides for discounts on advanced telecommunications services for K-12 schools, public libraries, and rural health care facilities. (Sec. 254 (h)). A Federal-State Joint Board was commissioned to make recommendations on this section of the law (along with recommendations about universal service in general), but it is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that is currently in the process of writing the rules for the implementation of the statute.

However, state public utility commissions have jurisdiction over intrastate telecommunications. Although the scope of the discounts is still being debated, in the majority of cases it appears likely that discounts will most often be applied to transport services between schools and libraries and their local Internet service provider (ISP). Thus, the discounted services fall under the jurisdiction of state utility commissions. Furthermore, as mentioned above, it is the individual school districts that will determine whether and how to make use of the discounts to connect their schools. Also, discounts are likely to require a level of means-testing to determine how they are applied to particular schools.

The federal government has also gone beyond "coordination" efforts with state and local governments. A significant amount of funding to promote the planning for and development of public information infrastructure has gone directly to state and local governments. The Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP) of the U.S. Department of Commerce has made a number of investment awards to state and local governments, including awards to local school districts, city and county governments, state government agencies, and state university systems. Funding for fiscal year 1994 included $3.3 million for state and local government infrastructure planning projects.

The national, state, and local agendas for the development of public information infrastructure, therefore, interact at many different levels: policy development, regulation, legislation, and funding.

Case studies: national agenda and local initiatives

States inventory project

The National Science Foundation-sponsored project titled States Inventory Project: An Inventory of State Network Infrastructure and Strategic Planning for the National Information Infrastructure is the basis of research for this paper. FARNET (the Federation of American Research Networks) made a proposal to and was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Division of Networking and Communications Infrastructure to "design, develop and deploy an on-line guide to telecommunications and infrastructure, Internet penetration and strategic directions for each of the United States." The grant was awarded in October of 1995 for a three-year period.

The objective of the project is to facilitate the exchange of information among state and local policymakers both within and among states. The primary audience is state and local policymakers responsible for the planning, provisioning, and implementation of information infrastructure solutions for education, government, and public use.

The project provides an interactive input interface that allows policymakers to contribute information relevant to policies, planning, and infrastructure; provides an interactive retrieval interface that allows policymakers and the public to search for information; works with various membership-oriented organizations to develop research that state and local policymakers will find useful; and works with the interactive elements of the project as well as with policymakers from each of the states to make the project a non-static, self-maintaining resource useful beyond the life of the current NSF grant.

The scope of research for the project is quite broad, including the following catalog of topics for each state:

State NII-related initiatives

The use and development of the NII is one of the greatest challenges facing states today. State policymakers are plagued by questions about what needs to be done, who should do it, and how the NII and the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 will affect their states' economic development. However, despite a great deal of uncertainty about how to proceed, many states have begun to focus on issues that their officials consider crucial for economic development and for improving their citizens' general quality of life. Two areas where states have dedicated a considerable amount of their NII development resources are education and health care reform.



In our research, one thing is clear--states are very concerned with the role of education in the development of the NII. This focus is natural, given the general dissatisfaction with public education throughout the states and the enormous potential that information technology offers to educators and students. Virtually all of the states can be said to view advanced telecommunications and the NII as a method for solving many of the problems facing education today.

Education on the NII is not a monolithic endeavor, at least not from the state perspective. States have, through legislation, strategic planning, and project implementation, indicated that there are a number of areas of particular concern to policymakers. These include connectivity, providing general access to the Internet for public schools; Internet access, supplying students, teachers, and parents with access to the Internet and to educational resources across the state, nation, and even the globe; lifelong learning, developing systems for allowing continuing education for all citizens; distance learning, providing mechanisms for isolated communities to receive equitable access to education resources and for maximizing access to experts for all students; and networking, providing technology that gives students, teachers, and parents a way to discuss education issues. Generally speaking, if a state is heavily involved in information technology initiatives in education, it has some project or planned project in each of these areas.

Perhaps where the states differ the most is in their strategic planning and their governance of education initiatives. Some states have a comprehensive technology plan that covers education and many NII-related areas. For instance, Alaska has released a strategic plan called Alaska 2001, which addresses the major topics of NII/advanced telecommunications use and deployment, including education. In other states, the principal education plan is an independent document dedicated to information technology in education. This is the case in Virginia, with its Six-Year Educational Technology Plan for Virginia.

The governance of NII-related education initiatives varies from state to state. Some states have separate task forces or similar managing bodies for each area of education reform. Others coordinate most of their efforts through a traditional Department of Education. In addition, most states have a variety of partnerships with the federal government, other states, and private organizations to operate test beds and to fund the research and development of new education programs.

Although it is difficult to capture much more than a snapshot of state education reform efforts, we provide below an overview of a single state in order to demonstrate the kind of information that can be collected in this area. We selected Texas because it has a fairly robust set of education programs that are well coordinated and easily accessed from the Internet.

A profile of education initiatives: Texas

Texas has a broad range of education initiatives aimed at taking full advantage of the potential that advanced telecommunications offers to educators and students. Although these projects are funded from a variety of federal, state, local, and private sources, Texas is interesting because of the large financial commitment it has dedicated to bringing education into the information age.

In 1995, Texas House Bill 2128 was signed into law, deregulating local competition and creating the Texas Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund. This fund was aimed to promote the use of advanced telecommunications by public services. As noted by the Texas Telecommunications Policy Institute (TTPI), "up to $150 million per year could be collected from telecommunications companies for investment in upgrades of public service applications of telecommunications infrastructure." Such funding makes Texas a potential leader in advanced telecommunications/NII development. A good deal of the effort and funding behind the fund is dedicated to the support of education.

Texas has a number of organizations and projects involved in promoting the use of advanced telecommunications in education. Rather than identify them all, we have provided a few examples in Appendix A to illustrate the direction Texas has taken in educational information technology. In general, these organizations and projects are unified in scope and direction by the Texas Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund.

The organizations set out in Appendix A support Texas's commitment to providing students and teachers with easily accessible, useful information, promoting the development of a robust network for the use of educators and students, and developing a distance learning network to equalize educational opportunities for all students, regardless of location.

The projects highlighted in the appendix further demonstrate the implementation of Texas education reform. These projects range from providing resource material to teachers to developing a satellite network to offer distance learning to rural citizens.

Health care


Another major issue facing state governments is health care reform. Spiraling costs are prompting states to seek new methods for delivering health care services to their citizens. One new method is to use advanced telecommunications to deliver health care to citizens in remote locations. This kind of distance care is called "telemedicine." Telemedicine is not new. Early in this century, doctors provided medical support for remote or inaccessible locations via that era's advanced communications service: radio. However, radio did not offer the revolutionary possibilities that today's advanced telecommunications offer. Digital sounds, high-resolution images and video, and an infrastructure that can transmit large quantities of information allow physicians to diagnose and treat a variety of medical conditions at a distance without sacrificing quality of care.

The states have begun in earnest to initiate new programs in telemedicine. Projects in operation are testing the utility of telemedicine in emergency situations and with prison and rural populations. These networks also provide a convenient method for isolated medical personnel to obtain continuing education. The cost-savings potential of telemedicine, along with the decreasing cost and increasing accessibility of network services, makes telemedicine a very viable option for states interested in improving their health-care infrastructures.

States are increasing their funding commitments to telemedicine programs; however, many programs still receive funding from the federal government and from the private sector. One state that has demonstrated a strong commitment to telemedicine, particularly for delivery of health care to rural areas, is North Carolina.

A profile of health-care initiatives: North Carolina

North Carolina is experimenting with a number of telemedicine programs that are primarily directed at equalizing the level of medical care between urban and rural regions. Most of the programs in North Carolina stem from or use the North Carolina Information Highway, a broadband network developed to provide teleconferencing, high-speed data, distance learning, and other services to the people of North Carolina. The state funds all of the projects, but receives some funding from the federal government (e.g., NTIA grants) and from the private sector.

North Carolina's telemedicine programs have already markedly improved the provision of health care in the state. Many citizens in rural areas now receive quality health care without incurring the expense in time and money of traveling to a distant hospital. Prison inmates also are receiving an increasing amount of treatment via telemedicine. Remote treatment of prisoners allows North Carolina to avoid many of the security expenses associated with transporting prisoners to advanced-care facilities.

The telemedicine programs in North Carolina are still testing the best ways to provide distance treatment. Videoconferencing and other advanced telecommunications services are being developed, and revolutionary new methods for using those services are being researched. Although North Carolina uses telemedicine on a limited basis today, the success of its many programs indicates that telemedicine will become a vital part of the state's information infrastructure. Appendix B includes examples of North Carolina's primary efforts in telemedicine. These projects focus on providing health care to remotely located populations and on developing new ways to make North Carolina telemedicine more efficient and cost-effective.

Analysis and conclusions

In the United States, the national and local agendas for developing public information infrastructure are often similar and driven by many of the same factors. At the same time, the United States is characterized by a federal system that delegates substantial authority to states and local governments on various issues. Public education is a prime example.

Another example is that while the U.S. has one of the most contestable telecommunications markets in the world, there is nevertheless a great deal of fragmentation in the legal and regulatory framework of the networks that underlie the Internet. State public utility commissions, despite federal preemption in some areas in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, continue to wield a great deal of power over the introduction of competition in local telephone markets. This will have direct impact on the methods and speed at which public schools are connected to the Net.

It is unclear what parallels from the U.S. experience can be drawn for other countries. The U.S. system of federal-state sharing of authority is replicated in some other countries, but not the majority. What might be said, however, is that local initiatives at building information infrastructure are already taking place in many countries, including several developing countries. The nature of the Internet--its decentralization--makes it easier for those with common interests to come together and meet their own needs. Sometimes these attempts at LII are far ahead of national policies and agendas. On the other hand, local, regional, and national government can play an essential role, especially in the areas of universal access, where broader agendas and policies are needed to ensure that underdeveloped regions are not left behind.

There also appears to be a need for a project like the FARNET/NSF States Inventory Project to be done on a global scale; that is, an effort to collate and catalog the various national policy developments taking place in the context of the GII. A number of issues have been taken to worldwide bodies in an effort to harmonize certain policies. Those issues now include several legal and regulatory issues such as trademark and domain names and intellectual property. But national governments are also looking at information infrastructure as an economic driver for world marketplace competitiveness. That could ultimately drive policies to connect public education, government information, health-care services, and other communities, just as we have seen in the States Inventory Project.


Education: Texas


The Texas Center for Educational Technology's (http://www.tcet.unt.edu) mission is "to promote research and development collaborations between industry and education in order that technologies and applications can be adopted for integration into the public school system." TCET researches the impact of technology on education, develops distance learning and other education-related technologies, and evaluates and supports education technology initiatives.

The Texas Distance Learning Association (http://www.baylor.edu/~TxDLA) focuses on "promoting the sensible application of distance learning strategies to maximize access, equity, and quality of educational resources for teachers and learners of all ages."

The Texas Education Agency (http://www.tea.texas.gov) "provide[s] timely useful information to the Texas education community." The agency's Web site provides Texas educators and citizens with useful information about education programs and administrative issues.

The Texas Education Network (TENET) (http://www.tenet.edu), as described by the TTPI, "advances and promotes education in Texas by providing a transparent communications infrastructure which can be used to foster innovation and educational excellence in Texas." TENET also has a list of links to K-12 Web sites throughout the world and provides online advice on educational Web site development. In Texas, more than 180 K-12 schools had Web sites as of July 30, 1996.

Some projects

Armadillo (http://chico.rice.edu/armadillo/Rice/Resources/reshome.html) is "a list where teachers can quickly access resource materials for direct use in their lesson plans or as additional resources for students to explore."

The Electronic Emissary (http://www.tapr.org/emissary) is "a 'matching service' that helps teachers with access to the Internet locate other Internet account-holders who are experts in different disciplines, for purposes of setting up curriculum-based, electronic exchanges among the teachers, their students, and the experts."

Houston Education Resource Network (HERN) (http://riceinfo.rice.edu/hern) exists "[t]o help Houston's students learn and succeed by providing an electronic information highway that efficiently links community resources to the needs of students, their families, teachers and schools and help provider organizations work together more effectively."

Texas School Telecommunications Access Resource (T-STAR) (http://www.tea.state.tx.us:70/0/technology/st5.html) is "a statewide satellite network linking Texas school districts, the regional Education Service Centers (ESCs) and the Agency to a wealth of satellite service providers across the country. Distance learning courses for students; professional development videoconferences for teachers, administrators and staff; in-service training for teachers; curriculum enrichment programs for use in the classroom; and education news, information, technical assistance and administrative support are examples of the kinds of telecommunication opportunities available via T-STAR."

Projects for Educational Technology Demonstration Programs (http://www.tea.state.tx.us:70/0/technology/petd/kahan.html) is a grant program of the Texas Education Agency that has awarded more than $1.5 million to 21 school districts to "conduct proper and efficient planning for the innovative and creative uses of technology and develop planning process models."

Health care: North Carolina

Some Projects

Wake Forest University Medical Center Telemedicine Program (http://isnet.is.wfu.edu/telemed) is principally focused on providing health care to outlying communities in North Carolina. The program provides consultation in telepathology, pediatric echocardiology, and geriatric psychiatry.

North Carolina Health Care Information and Communications Alliance (NCHCICA) (http://www2.interpath.net/nchica/prospect.html) is intended to demonstrate the benefits of telemedicine for rural and disadvantaged patients. Another function of this program is to provide distance consultation during emergencies. NCHCICA sites will be connected over the North Carolina Information Highway.

University of North Carolina Telemedicine Project (NTIA Rural Telemedicine Project) (http://elm.bme.unc.edu/telemed) is a fully implemented NTIA-funded program to provide rural patients with care without the need for extensive travel. It also offers the resources of larger hospitals to smaller ones by transmitting high-resolution images (e.g., X rays) and digital sounds (e.g., heartbeats transmitted through a stethophone) via the ATM technology provided by the North Carolina Superhighway. The system is used primarily by the radiology and emergency care departments of participating hospitals.

East Carolina University Telemedicine Program--Rural Eastern Carolina Health Network (REACH-TV) (http://www.telemed.med.ecu.edu) began as a telemedicine program linking the North Carolina Central Prison with ECU but has expanded to a full-fledged telemedicine program for the rural areas of eastern North Carolina. This program is interesting because of the breadth of services provided via the network. Consultation and treatment have been delivered for more than 30 different medical disciplines-from adult cardiology to vascular surgery-for a total of 1,162 (and counting) total consultations. This program has also begun constructing treatment rooms designed specifically for telemedicine consultations.


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