NATIONAL INFORMATION INFRASTRUCTURE

There are also distinct differences in the national information and global information infrastructures in Japan and the United States. In the United States, changes in the national telecommunications and information infrastructure are providing significant challenges for human-computer interaction research and driving many of its advances.

The spread of home computing and the growth of the Internet and on-line services have increased the heterogeneity of the population that needs to be served. No longer is the typical computer user an educated, white-collar worker. Once computers move from the workplace to home, they are used by a greater diversity of people doing a greater diversity of tasks, from preschool children playing games and drawing, to non-English speakers running a home business, to old people sending electronic mail and doing household chores. Increases in the size of hard disks and the rise of the World Wide Web mean that finding particular documents, distinguishing valuable information from rubbish, or organizing information within the vast amount of communication and information that is available, are daunting tasks. The size of the information space and the heterogeneity of the population has accentuated problems of filtering and display for very different kinds of people. The challenge of electronic commerce raises the problems of ensuring security and conducting transactions in ways that people will find understandable and tolerable. Human-computer interaction challenges are magnified when one is trying to achieve a networked nation.

Use of the Internet and on-line commercial services is less developed in Japan than in the United States and, as a result, seems to be driving human-computer interaction research less. Although the Japanese are making advances in developing a national information infrastructure, the gap between the United States and Japan seems to be widening, rather than narrowing, because sales of home computers and commercial activity involving the Internet and on-line services are developing more rapidly in the United States than in Japan.

Moreover, the technological infrastructure on which the national information network is based is less well developed in Japan than in the United States. Fewer households in Japan than in the United States have personal computers. In 1994, fewer than 25% of Japanese households had a personal computer, compared to 37% in the United States (Dentsu-Souken 1995). Subscription to cable TV was substantially lower, with 26% of households subscribing in Japan in 1994, versus 65% in the United States. Subscription to commercial on-line services is substantially less and is growing less rapidly in Japan than in the United States. Figure 3.8 shows that the growth in the major on-line services (like CompuServe, Prodigy, and America On-Line) in the United States is faster than the growth in the major Japanese on-line services, sponsored by NEC and Fujitsu.


Fig. 3.8. Growth in on-line services in Japan and the United States (Dentsu-Souken 1995).

The major area where Japan is leading the United States is the deployment of ISDN, the narrow-band digital network that has been available in Japan for several years, but is only now being tariffed in the United States for residential customers. In 1994, Japan had over 200,000 ISDN lines available.

Although Internet activity in Japan is lagging behind that in the United States, it is accelerating, and changes are occurring rapidly. The 1994 MITI budget (Ministry of International Trade and Industry 1994), for example, focuses on national infrastructure applications as a major area of investment. And the rationale MITI uses to justify this investment is the gap between the Japanese and U.S. practice. English language World Wide Web sites to monitor Internet activities in Japan include NTT's web site (http://www.ntt.jp/) and the Japanese Window project at Stanford University, the goal of which is to provide an electronic window into technological and commercial activity in Japan (http://jw.nttam.com/).

One disincentive for individuals and organizations in Japan to use the Internet is the extremely high cost of on-line access (as well as the cost of telecommunications generally). Figure 3.9 is an advertisement from the Tokyo Internet Company, which claims rates 50% cheaper than other commercial Internet providers in the Tokyo area. Yet its prices in July 1995 were 19,000 per month (or approximately $220.00 at the then-current exchange rate of 86 to $1) for dial-up Internet access, plus a $350.00 sign-up charge.(Endnote 1) In contrast, in New York City virtually unlimited Internet access is available for approximately $25 per month. Twenty to fifty dollars per month for dial-up Internet access is a typical U.S. price range.


Fig. 3.9. English-language advertisement for TokyoNet Internet access, July 1995.

Japan, like the United States, is sponsoring a number of commercial broadband network trials. (See Chapter 4 for an overview of the broadband trials.) Like similar trials in the United States, the Japanese trials have both a technology and a market research component. NTT and other service providers want to know how to deliver broadband applications and also want to understand what the consumer would be willing to pay for.

The broadband trial in the Seika-Nishikizu area of Japan is typical. The Association for the Promotion of New Generation Services has the mission to run a field trial of broadband telecommunications network services to the home. The trial, called Pilot Model Project for New Generation Communications Network, connects 300 cable-TV subscribers who were given optical fiber connections to their homes. The trial started in July 1994 and is scheduled to continue for three years. The project provides 31-channel cable-TV (including two high-definition channels); video on demand; image-based information services, including department-store catalogs and transportation information; video game delivery; and video telephone service. Other broadband services, including distance education and home karaoke, are planned for the future. Unlike the comparable United States trials, which are funded exclusively by private industry, the Japanese broadband trials have a substantial government subsidy. For example, the Seika-Nishikizu trial is budgeted for approximately $150 million over its three-year life, and is funded approximately 70% by the Communications Research Laboratory of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, with other funding coming from NTT and a large number of information providers (e.g., Sega) and telecommunications equipment providers (e.g., AT&T Japan). In contrast, U.S. government subsidies have concentrated on computer and data networking trials, ranging from the original ARPAnet research and development initiative to the more recent support for the NSFnet and the High-Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) initiatives. It is likely that this differential allocation of government resources helps explain the relative maturity of Internet infrastructure and use in the United States compared to Japan.


Published: March 1996; WTEC Hyper-Librarian