Citizens of cyberspace, beware: Your free ride on the "information superhighway" could be drawing to an end.
The National Science Foundation is completing plans to privatize the "main lane" of the Internet, that computer freeway traveled by 20 million people around the globe.
Jamie Love, executive director of the Taxpayer Assets Project, a Washington group affiliated with Ralph Nader, said the NSF's privatization plan could lead to higher connection fees for Internet users and a decline in citizen activism on the net.
"The charm of the Internet is based on the idea that people are sending E-mail messages not at a cheap rate, but virtually for free," Mr. Love said.
But he fears the free ride could start to end this summer, when the NSF begins moving electronic traffic off the federally subsidized NSFNet and onto four privately run network access points.
The four NAPs -- run by Pacific Bell, Sprint, Ameritech and Metropolitan Fiber Systems -- will replace the government-supported NSFNet by spring. They will have a five-year franchise to compete with each other to carry the Internet traffic that now gets a taxpayer-subsidized ride on NSFNet.
Roger Taylor, executive officer of the NSF's networking division, said that as more commercial firms joined the Internet, the rationale for taxpayer support had diminished.
"The government doesn't need to be in the business of running a commodity data service when there are private firms ready and able to do the job," Mr. Taylor said.
NSFNet was created in the mid-1980s, when network technology was in its infancy, to link U.S. universities. But foreign and commercial computer networks soon plugged into NSFNet, which in time became the fast lane of the Internet.
In 1993, U.S. taxpayers spent $11 million to run NSFNet, in essence subsidizing traffic on the Internet. Mr. Taylor estimated federal support of NSFNet has amounted to a 10 percent subsidy of the $100 million or so that U.S. companies, universities and citizens spend to connect to the Internet each year.
"The worst that could happen [with the withdrawal of the NSFNet subsidy] is that everybody's fees could go up $1 or $2 per person [per year]," Mr. Taylor said.
But Mr. Love has collected several thousand signatures on a petition warning the NSF that any fee boost by the NAPs would cripple citizen activists who send hundreds of thousands of E-mail messages each day.
Jim Payne of Sprint, which will be the NAP in New York, said the fact that four NAPs would replace one NSFNet would increase the capacity of the Internet and could actually drive prices down.
However, Mr. Payne said, the NAPs could eventually decide to do what Love fears most: "meter" usage on the Internet to charge customers by how much they send or receive, a pricing mechanism that could boost charges for activist groups or anyone else pumping out E-mail in volume.
"I do not believe you will see metered pricing immediately," he said.
Frank Liu, who runs the NAP program at Pacific Bell, said the contracts between NSF and the NAPs -- which will influence connection fees -- were still being negotiated and would not be publicly revealed until the deals were signed, perhaps this week. However, Mr. Liu said, moving Internet users from NSFNet to the NAPs "is really a significant change, because before they had direct and free connection to (NSFNet), and in the future they will not."
About 100 Internet providers from the United States and abroad met in Washington late last week to discuss the technical and political details of the transition.
"We're aware of the concerns of the public interest groups, and we're meeting to work them out," said Martha Stone-Martin of FARNET Inc. Her Lexington, Mass.-based trade association, which represents about 40 companies that provide connections to the Internet, organized the conference.