SUPERHIGHWAY RAMP FULL OF BUMPS, PERILS

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I'm glad, for the sake of us TV viewers, that the TCI-Bell Atlantic deal fell through, and at least temporarily, the on-ramp to the information superhighway has been shut down.

I was getting exhausted just thinking about all the TV and data options I would be cruising along that digital highway. And I might add I was a little nervous about whether I could master all that interactivity I would be confronted with.

Now I can go back to grazing lazily among the 40 or 50 channels I have at my disposal. I can handle that, especially on Thursday nights when I can stay tuned to my favorite comedies, all conveniently residing on the same channel. I'm afraid the information superhighway is a perfect example of technology in search of a market. When you stop to think about it, it's hard to believe that companies were willing to invest billions of dollars in a technology nobody knew if anybody wanted or needed.

What makes more sense to me is the kind of deal announced last week, in which MCI is acquiring a stake in Nextel, a wireless communications company. There is a market out there for a nationwide cellular telephone network. Better the Baby Bells move in that direction than try to link existing telephone lines with TV signals via computers.

The cellular phone, like the fax and the copier, were aimed at business people in the initial stages of their development. As a matter of fact, MCI originally marketed its cut-rate, long-distance telephone service to businesses. Only after these products were firmly entrenched in the business-to-business market did the companies involved invade the consumer marketplace.

In many instances it wasn't really an invasion at all. Business people who got used to the faxes and copiers where they worked started buying them for their home. Often, of course, they were bought for business reasons, but very soon other members of the family devised personal uses for the machines.

For example, my daughter Heather recently bought a Compaq computer, and now she faxes her daily schedule, printed out from her computer, to her Mom. And families are using beepers to signal their kids when to come home to dinner.

The CD-ROM is another good example of a product that built its base as a storer of business information. But the discs have now carved out a booming consumer market, encompassing everything from the instructional like the "Mayo Clinic Family Health" book and "Art Gallery," a guided tour of the National Gallery in London, to shoot-'em-up games with lifelike gore and sex, as The New York Times reported. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has been eclipsed by CD-ROM versions, so fast is the technology growing. Maybe there's a good reason why most advertisers have stayed on the tried-and-true interstates rather than jumping on the information superhighways. They can't figure out how to use them, and neither can the rest of us.

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