That was the overriding message as private sector and government leaders gathered last week at the Networked Economy conference in Washington.
Many speakers agreed with the Clinton administration's general principle that the superhighway should be built with private funds and have market-driven competition, universal access and service guided by flexible regulations. The roadblocks come in the details.
That was especially evident after the seven regional telephone companies were blamed for thwarting passage of comprehensive telecommunications reform legislation, which would have allowed telephone and cable companies to compete in each other's markets. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings (D., S.C.) on Sept. 23 withdrew his bill, blaming Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R., Kan.) and the Baby Bells.
"The bill died because change is always hard, especially when you are sitting on a comfortable monopoly," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D., Mass.), chairman of the House Telecommunications and Finance Subcommittee. "It died because every party wants to get into other businesses but wants to keep competitors out of their backyards."
Despite repeated calls for less government presence, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt said broadcast, cable and telephone companies keep asking for more regulation against their competitors.
"Everyone agrees that the telcos should be able to compete against cable," he said. "But the cable industry has asked the FCC to reject virtually every application that has been filed by telephone companies to develop video dialtone."
At the conference, AT&T Chairman Robert Allen strongly objected to France Telecom and Deutsche Bundespost Telekom's proposed 20% investment in competitor Sprint. He called for the U.S. government to permit entry of overseas communications companies into the U.S. market only if their governments provide equal access.
The deal "would not fit any reasonable definition of full and fair competition ... as long as France and Germany maintain their tight grip on competition," Mr. Allen said.
But Sprint and its partners blasted AT&T, saying AT&T had sought an alliance with the companies. Also, both foreign companies noted that moves are under way to fully liberalize the European telecommunications market by Jan. 1, 1998.
With the death of the Hollings bill, construction on the superhighway will go forward, but with delays, several conference speakers said. The uncertainty in the regulatory climate could slow down the industry's fast pace of alliances and mergers.
Federal legislative efforts will resume in the next session. Meanwhile, states may remove regulatory barriers to increase competition. And the regional phone companies are likely to continue to turn to the courts to get into cable services.
"This is a fight that we are going to win, if not in this Congress, then in the next," said Ron Brown, U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
The Justice Department will continue to enforce existing antitrust laws and will be especially watchful of high-tech mergers among telephone, cable and computer companies, said Anne Bingaman, assistant attorney general-antitrust division for the U.S. Department of Justice.
Though the Clinton administration spends considerable time promoting telecommunications principles worldwide, U.S. phone and cable companies aren't looking for a government regulator or coordinator.
"I really think the marketplace is going to drive" it, said William Esrey, Sprint chairman-CEO. "We don't need someone to do a master plan."
Most conference speakers agreed there will be multiple ways to access the information superhighway-through computers, telephones, TVs and wireless devices.
"This is going to be a learning experience for all of us on what the public is going to care about and not. It's all a moving target," said John Malone, president-CEO, Tele-Communications Inc. "Not only is the target moving, the competition is moving. It's anyone's guess how it all will evolve ... This is not going to happen universally overnight."
Advertising, attendees said, will play a key role in subsidizing interactive services and keeping costs to consumers low.
"Unless we deliver at a very low cost, we're in trouble," said Larry Ellison, president-CEO of Oracle Corp. Interactive TV spots will have to be entertaining to get people to watch and buy, he said.
But some services are purposely lagging in their advertising applications.
"We have to build an audience," said Steve Case, president-CEO of America Online. "We want to take the time and do it right. It has to be useful, profitable and welcomed by the customer."