When Larry Irving joined the Commerce Dept. in early 1993, most Americans were considering dial-up Internet access. Broadband access wasn't widely available. By the time he left his post as head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration six years later, Americans were replacing dial up with broadband and the World Wide Web was well on its way to become a central part of daily life and business.
Irving, now a consultant who specializes in policies to improve the access of underserved communities, reflected on the early days of the commercial internet in a Sept. 5 conversation in his Washington office.
Irving had been a House staffer and a member of President-elect Clinton's technology transition team before being appointed director of NTIA. "Coming off the House Telecommunications subcommittee, we knew what CompuServe was, we knew there was this nascent AOL, we knew these other players were out there. But we weren't as involved in the Internet in '92, as (Subcommittee Chairman) Ed Markey and those guys would become in '93 and '94….
"For all the grief that Al Gore gets, he really had the best sense of the possibilities. Because we all worked for him and it all rolled up to him—name another Vice President in the history of the country who for six years held an hour-long meeting every Tuesday morning about technology, specifically telecommunications and IT. That's what Al Gore did… [Y]ou were meeting with the Vice President if you were involved in the development of the commercial net, How would we use the net for positive social purposes in the United States? That was Gore's leadership…. I don't know if the Vice President has ever gotten full credit, not just for the vision but for corralling all the disparate parts that could have gone off on their own little tangent but for the fact that he pulled it together."
A critical policy decision in those early days was to promote commercial use of the net while imposing minimal regulation. "You have to remember something about Gore and [Commerce Secretary Ron] Brown and Clinton. They were all moderates, particularly with regard to economics…. If you talk to folks who were working in the Clinton Administration development of IT and telecom, our first thing was do no harm…. We didn't want to stifle investment. We didn't want to stifle innovation. We wanted people who knew more to make those decisions, and we figured that if we had to protect things, we'd have time to protect them. You have to remember we went from a million users of the Internet when I started my job to, by the time I left, about a hundred million domestically. On that curve, if something really untoward was happening, you had time to get involved."
Asked what has surprised him most about the development of the Internet over the past 20 years, Irving said: "I think we underestimated the wireless revolution, and I think we underestimated how fast things would move from wired to wireless. You have to remember [former MIT Media Lab Director Nicholas] Negroponte's wish that everything that was wired would become wireless and everything wireless would become wired, meaning that television would come over a cable and computing would go wireless. We didn't see how fast that would happen. And the power--we didn't imagine that something the size of a deck of cards would have more computing power than the computer I had in 1999 when I left government, and 1.5 billion people have access to it. There are 2 billion people on the Internet - The United States being the major player- but English no longer being the dominant language. How fast the rest of the world caught up and became full participants has been amazing.
The big challenge facing the move to wireless is the availability of enough bandwidth to support the demand. Irving thinks the U.S. will rise to the challenge: "We have a great opportunity. I have a lot of clients who have different stakes in this. I worry about spectrum policy a lot. I worry that the banal will drown out the important. You can only play Words With Friends so long; you can only check so many Facebook messages. There are so many powerful uses of this technology that we are not really beginning to explore. You're beginning to see some of that change.
"I think there's going to be a real food fight. I tell people that if you liked the water wars in the West in the 1800s, you're going to love the spectrum wars in the western world in the 2000s. Everybody wants to go to heaven and nobody wants to die. No one wants to give up their perspective on how to get this right. As a former fed, I blame primarily the federal government. I think there is an opportunity for real leadership and I don't see in the Administration or the FCC or the Commerce Dept. doing what I think is in the best interests of the country, which is telling our federal users, ‘You're going to have to work with us in a more productive way.' There are a lot of folks sitting on a lot of spectrum. You have to figure out where it is. I understand they know their needs are going to increase as well, but you're not going to get the innovation, you're not going to get the investment, you're not going to get the user experience.
"I was at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York last Saturday and I might as well have had a brick in my pocket as a phone because you have 30,000 people all of whom are using smartphones that are bandwidth intensive, all of whom want to send a picture up, all of whom want to do a quick video—and none of us could do any of it. That will be the planet if we don't figure this out. When the iPhone 5 comes out, when the seven or eight new tablets this week alone—in the month of September there will be seven or eight tablets introduced—when Windows 8 comes with touch and tablets, that's going to put more stress on the system. We just aren't ready for this."