"Information Highway" or "Information Superhighway" is now a buzz word among the technological savvy in this country. But what is it? And what does it mean to ordinary business people? The blunt answer is; "Not much". Then why should we pay attention to this trend? Right now, it might not mean much to the ordinary executive who still relies on print for their insight and decision-making. Yet, a considerable number of people from all walks of life are becoming increasingly dependent on electronic information. History: Thailand's electronic information revolution began several years ago when PacLink began offering paging services to Bangkokians which was later expanded to cover the whole country. It was joined several years later by PhoneLink, which dominated the paging market within one year due to its easy three-digit dial-up number while the pioneer had to contend with the old seven-digit dial-up number which they would later change to a four-digit number. PacLink and PhoneLink were later joined by other paging service providers, Hutchison PagePhone and EasyCall. Initially, only telephone numbers (numeric) could be paged but later all the service providers offered text (alpha-numeric) in Thai and English. The four existing service providers were granted licences by either the Telephone Organisation of Thailand (TOT) [PhoneLink, Hutchison PagePhone, EasyCall] or the Communications Authority of Thailand (CAT) [PacLink]. The fifth pager provider will be granted by the Post and Telegraph Department for Government personnel. The Department is in the process of drafting the terms of reference for bidding. Business information providers: The TOT did not only grant concessions to pager service providers, it also granted concessions to other providers of electronic data, notably the DataNet which is a joint venture between Shinawatra Group and Singapore Telecom. DataNet makes it possible to use the existing dial-up telephone lines to be data lines, while users retain the use of their voice lines. The technology was provided by AT&T using the equipment called "Voice Data Multiplexer" at both the users' end and at the TOT's telephone exchanges throughout Bangkok. Since the leased line (data line) is a scarce commodity as the TOT cannot keep up with the demand, DataNet has provided a valuable service indeed to the electronic information revolution in Thailand. Apart from point-to-point connection, DataNet offers "broadcasting service" where a user's message can be broadcast to several points simultaneously. This proves a boon to several users such as the Stock Exchange of Thailand, commercial banks, finance companies and other "business information providers" including Biznews and Reuters which provide real-time business information. Biznews was the pioneer in the field of real-time business information in this country. Apart from stock and other business information from both domestic and overseas sources, Biznews also provides domestic political news in both Thai and English as politics does affect domestic and foreign investment. The newcomer on the scene is Reuter which is linked with INN (Independent News Network), a subsidiary of Crown Property Bureau, to provide more or less the same service as Biznews. Biznews is strong on the local news angle with Reuter stronger on the foreign front. However, the dominant player is still Biznews due to its longer history and greater local news coverage. While Biznews and Reuters rely on DataNet as the medium to broadcast its news, the newcomer Comline is set to offer its interactive service news and information this September to users using a personal computer equipped with modems to dial in through an ordinary phone line. Lines Technology (Thailand) Co, which operates Comline, is a subsidiary of Telecom Holding which is in turn a subsidiary of TelecomAsia (TA) whose majority stake is held by the CP Group. Lines Technology has received a concession from the TOT to operate the service. Since TA will be installing two million phone lines in Bangkok, Lines Technology should experience little trouble securing as many telephone lines as it wishes to operate its dial-up interactive news service. The company said that it had already invested over 20 million baht to set up the system and that it plans to spend an additional 30 million baht to complete the installation and provide the real- time interactive service. The company is in the process of securing cooperation from various news providers including the print media. Meanwhile, the traditional pager service providers are also extending real-time information service covering stock quotes, news and airline information. Both PhoneLink and Hutchison PagePhone are offering these added services for users whose pagers can display both numbers and the alphabet (alpha-numeric). Information Superhighway: The name Information Superhighway conjures up images of a vast network in which users can access endless streams of information. Such a term is not applicable by all electronic information service providers in Thailand at present as they provide a limited scope of information, mostly concentrating on business information. So what really is the Information Superhighway? The term is believed to originate from US Vice-President Al Gore's idea of building the superstructure of a high-speed telecommunications network capable of displaying voice, data and video to every organisation, business and ultimately, to ordinary households. Vice-President Gore appointed a committee to outline recommendations to implement such a project in the US as it is acknowledged it has a competitive edge in this technology while other developed countries of the EU and Japan still lag far behind. The preliminary report suggested that the present "Internet" be upgraded to provide more bandwidth (higher capacity) by building a very high-speed national network capable of sending information at the speed of 100 Megabits per second or about 10 million characters per second. The network backbone will comprise fibre- optic networks linking major cities throughout the country. The higher the speed, the larger the volume that the network can carry, which means that real-life video could be transmitted if traffic allowed. Thailand's Information Superhighway: As Internet is recognised as the "mother of all networks", it links all universities and research organisations in the United States and overseas. It also provides links to other commercial networks such as CompuServe, America-On-Line, GEnie etc. For this reason, Internet is recognised as the world's largest provider of all kinds of electronic information available either free or on a pay-per- access basis. Presently, there are more than 23,000 networks linking millions of computers in 130 countries connected to Internet. The growth rate of world-wide Internet usage is nearly 10% monthly. The local Biznews, Reuters and the upcoming ComLine may provide less than 0.000,0001% of what is available out there via Internet. Fortunately, Thailand has had full access to Internet since 1992 when THAISARN (The Thailand Social/scientific, Academic and Research Network) was founded. Starting from pure academic and research communities, it now reaches more than 27 sites in Thailand, including Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen and Songkhla (see list of participating organisations). THAISARN, the Internet of Thailand, was established and funded by the Government and is currently coordinated by NECTEC (The National Electronics and Computer Technology), Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment. Apart from universities and Government personnel, THAISARN network users now trickle down to private universities, schools and the general public -- the latter on an individual basis. The traffic of information passing in and out of the country via Internet registered 6,371 million characters in February this year, compared with only 603 million characters during the same month last year. The data flow growth rate was more than 1,000%. Public access to Internet in Thailand: NECTEC was the first organisation to allow the general public to become members with nominal fees of about 500 baht a month since January 1, 1994. Since access to the internationally leased line is governed by CAT, which would not normally allow the sharing of international bandwidth, NECTEC is operating under special provisions including the prohibition of bandwidth sales. For this reason, NECTEC cannot charge the individual public users the real cost. Users pay only for the maintenance of the equipment and system while NECTEC shoulders the full cost of the leased line to the tune of over one million baht a year. Effectively speaking, public users are subsidised by NECTEC. However, these "qualified individuals" have paid substantial taxes to the Government. In addition, their access to Internet would make them even more productive and allow higher incomes for themselves and their organisations, which would in turn result in higher taxes for the Government. Initially, NECTEC's Network Technology Laboratory (NTL) offered about 10 dial-up phone lines, while waiting for more lines from the TOT. Starting next month up to 40 lines will be made available as TOT finishes installing the requested lines. Another source for public individual users who want to join Internet is through Assumption University (AU), formerly known as Assumption Business Administration College (ABAC). TelecomAsia last week began installing 360 telephone lines at AU to be exclusively used by the general public to access Internet. The same criteria will be used to screen applications, i.e., the non-commercial applicant must be individually engaged in education and research, according to Prof Srisakdi Charmonman, chairman of the Internet Network Committee at Assumption University. Contacts: Interested parties may contact NECTEC at 248-8078-84 or (fax) 247- 1335. For Assumption University, the numbers are 719-1586-89 or (fax) 719-1590 and 719-0484.