The Battle to Control the Information Superhighway


New York.--The increasingly insane and seemingly interminable bidding for control of Paramount Communications is being widely viewed as one of the definitive battles determining who will be the lords of communication in the dawning age of the global, broad band, interactive electronic superhighway.

It is anything but. Optimistic estimates predict that the superhighway, whatever its configuration, will have reached only about 20 percent of American homes by the year 2000.

It could therefore be well into the next century before it reaches even a level of saturation now enjoyed by the conventional cable industry, which has to date, despite phenomenal growth and profits, penetrated only about 65 percent of American homes.

Looking back from the 21st century, it is difficult to imagine that anybody will find it of the slightest importance whether somebody named Barry Diller or Sumner Redstone or Marvin Davis controlled Paramount in 1994.

True, Bell Atlantic chairman Raymond Smith may now have a crystal-clear vision of the superhighway he is building, Rupert Murdoch may be the most fearsome multimedia figure on Earth, and every single Baby Bell, media company and software maker may have its own scenario for grabbing a piece of the action.

But beside all the fast-changing technology in play here, there are irresistible biological forces which dictate that very nearly all these gentlemen now grasping for supremacy in the new information age will be well into their dotage by the time the superhighway system reaches its maturity.

Between now and then, the possibilities for rearrangement of the assets involved are virtually limitless, as is the probability of one or more major players spending or acquiring themselves into bankruptcy.

The idea of Congress -- with the very best of intentions -- formulating a wise and coherent policy to shape such a fluid process in the consumer's interests is, of course, a fantasy, even were it able to resist the charms of monied forces jockeying for advantage.

Vice President Gore seemed to be saying as much last week. He suggested that rather than concentrating on conventional antitrust and regulatory issues, the federal government should seek to make the superhighway consumer-friendly in the broadest sense.

If the federal government can merely guarantee that the super highway is universally connected, is basically affordable and can be as nearly as possible universally accessed by all the people who want to pump drivel into our homes, it may matter less who owns it or monopolizes it.

Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, may be entirely correct to say that in the emerging superhighway "consumers are facing a megamonster."

The rush to get into the business is not, after all, driven by the same instincts that caused Andrew Carnegie to blanket the nation with free libraries because he felt it was a sin for any man to take his fortune to his grave. What we have now is a bunch of people who want to make a pile of money and die rich.

But with the technology of the situation exploding almost daily, there doesn't seem to be much the federal government can do except dictate that somehow the final result must not be a total disaster for consumers even if it does turn them all into drooling, house-bound vegetables.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

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