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Public E-Mail Booths? Democratizing Technology

Although usually born of necessity, once in a while invention springs to life spontaneously, creating a need where none existed before. Over the years what first appeared as exotic, if only marginally useful, technologies - radio, television, fax, even the first computers - are exactly such phenomena, mushrooming unexpectedly into central elements of our lives. Today e-mail presents itself as the next potential candidate, but in order to succeed, it must be two things: accessible and useful.

For e-mail to succeed, access has to be as simple as using the phone. That the Internet currently uses phone lines suggests this is possible, that with correct public policy we may achieve universal access.

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What remain to be implemented are the assurances, which we often take for granted, provided by first-class mail: privacy, authenticity, and integrity of the message. The good news is that the technology that would allow these features to exist already does. Nothing more need be invented. What is needed are the proper "certifying authorities," a system, like the postal service, to regulate and make it all happen, and the government is already moving in this direction.

Perhaps the more important issue, however, is the second: whether e-mail, and universal access to it, is truly useful. As was the case with the radio in its early days, the issue isn't only how well the technology works, but what you can actually do with it. In its early days, radio languished as a curious but nonessential bit of technology; It was not until radio dramas were used to sell soap flakes, what later became "soap operas," that radio began its rise to popularity.

The Internet has moved well beyond this point. In terms of e-mail, however, more useful and more important functions can and should be targeted. Though we are still in the early, awkward "adolescence" of e-mail, it is possible to look beyond technological bottlenecks and visualize some of the truly useful paths this technology might take.

The US government spends $350 million annually, for example, to notify its citizens of the results of their submissions to Medicare.

According to a study underway at RAND, some 500 million of these Explanations of Medical Benefits, (EOMBs) are sent by Medicare to Americans every year. And with the newly passed Kennedy-Kassebaum bill, there will be an increase in notification to 700 million a year.

AMAJOR problem with EOMBs is that they can only be sent to "the address of record" - so that for the many Americans whose lives are in transit, delays in notification can occur. But e-mail follows you wherever you are. Imagine the benefits of having public e-mail kiosks as ubiquitous as public phone booths, where a few key strokes would forward the EOMB to your Medigap Insurance or other carrier for reimbursement of the balance. Health information is only the tip of the iceberg; universal e-mail would have similar effects on tax returns, Social Security benefits, and student loans.

This year, the Federal Communications Commission is reviewing Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 - which, according to FCC Chairman William Kennard, "is intended to promote the deployment of advanced telecommunications infrastructure to all Americans," in what the legislation itself calls "a reasonable and timely fashion." The FCC has a great opportunity to be a catalyst for the evolution of powerful applications of technology, including universal e-mail.

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* Zo Baird is the president of the Markle Foundation, a philanthropic organization that focuses on mass communication in a democratic society.

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