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Japan gunning for U.S. Net dominance

The Japan government approved the outline of a bill aimed at overtaking the United States as a high-speed information technology giant by 2005.

TOKYO -- A blue-ribbon panel that wants Japan to overtake the United States as a high-speed information technology giant by 2005 approved on Wednesday the outline of a bill aimed at achieving that ambitious target.

And in an effort to boost computer literacy, politicians said they were considering an "IT voucher" scheme under which, according to media reports, those aged 20 or over would be eligible for vouchers worth about 6,000 yen ($55.93) to help defray the cost of courses in how to use PCs and the Internet.

'It is perfectly possible for us to overtake the United States in five years time, but for us to do that we are going to have to change some laws.'
-- Sony Corp. Chairman Nobuyuki Idei


"In the new Internet age, not being able to use a computer is like not being able to read and write," said Economic Planning Agency (EPA) chief Taichi Sakaiya, a keen proponent of the plan.

Officials will flesh out the details of their high-tech bill by next month so that the government can present the legislation to a session of parliament that begins on Thursday.

The panel late last month urged the government to take steps -- including laying a high-speed fiber optic network needed to promote the spread of the Internet -- needed to surpass the United States as an Internet powerhouse in five years. Change in laws

"It is perfectly possible for us to overtake the United States in five years time, but for us to do that we are going to have to change some laws," Chairman Nobuyuki Idei, who heads the panel, said in a speech to business leaders.

"Information technology is a strategically important sector and it is important for us to show commitment in a legal form," he added.

The outline approved on Wednesday was full of lofty ideals, including the principle that Japan's info-tech strategy should be powered by the private sector while the government stands back and promotes fair competition.

But it was short on specifics.

It urged the revision of regulations blocking the way to the spread of electronic commerce and the promotion of an "On Line Government" by 2003 to streamline the activities of the bureaucracy and smooth the path for public-private interface.

Internet a key plank

The government says there are 733 regulations and 124 laws obstructing E-commerce.

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has made Information Technology a key plank of his economic policies.

Some critics, though, suspect that plans to shift spending away from traditional public works projects such as bridges and roads to an Information Highway is in part a smoke-screen for the old-style pork barrel spending that has come under heavy fire from the public of late.

The planned bill would require the government to identify high priority projects with clear goals and set time-frames to help Japan fully harness its info-tech potential.

The Internet has been relatively slow to catch on in Japan, with the high cost of telecommunications fees a key barrier. Many companies fear the lag is hampering their ability to compete.

"In America communication is cheap and fast. In Japan it is expensive and slow," said Sony's Idei.

The new legislation will also call on the government to provide training for the average citizen in IT technology and to bolster the ranks of IT experts.