The Federal Communications Commission began discussions this week that could lead to a government policy requiring widespread Net access in schools, rural areas, and low-income homes.
The federal policy on universal service, which is more than a half-century old, guarantees the widespread availability of basic telephone service throughout the country. But with digital communications that link citizens through PCs and the Internet becoming increasingly mainstream, the government has begun tackling the issue of redefining universal access for the Information Age.
On Friday, the FCC held a meeting of its Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service, a nine-member committee charged by the Telecommunications Act with the task of reformulating the government's policy on universal service. The board addressed issues of both basic telephone service and advanced telecommunications services. Eventually, meetings like this one could result in a universal Net policy, mandating Net access throughout all regions of the country at libraries, health care providers, and secondary schools.
"[The Telecommunications Act] talks about making advanced telecommunication services available to all Americans," said Susan Sallet, acting director for the FCC's Office of Public Affairs. "We're asking people to tell us how this should be implemented. We really we want to get people involved...as we implement the Telecommunications Act."
Although the law does not mention the Internet specifically, the FCC meeting reflects part of a government to adapt to new communications technologies like the Net that are fundamentally affecting the economy but still not widely available in rural and lower-income households.
For example, a Joint Board notice posted on the FCC's Web site addresses several related issues, including whether the Internet increases the need for single-party phone service in some rural areas that still use party lines.
But many basic questions about the application of universal access rules to the Net would have to be resolved before the agency could take any substantive action.
"What does universal Internet access mean?" asked Amy Wohl, president of Wohl and Associates, a consultancy in Narberth, Pennsylvania. "Does it mean providing free access? Does it mean providing subsidized service? Does it mean providing an analog of the telephone? Are we going to provide people with network computers?"
The wording of the Telecommunications Act, which endorses the widespread deployment of data communications, is vague on the subject of which services--from email to broader Net access, including high-bandwidth connections such as cable--should be placed under the umbrella of universal access.
"The way universal access is defined in the Telecommunications Act now is very loose," said Margie Wylie, editor of industry newsletter DigitalMedia. "There is language that says people ought to have access to this and ought to have that. It doesn't say whether advanced telecommunications service is email or ISDN."
If the FCC does come up with a universal access policy for the Net, the most critical question will be who will pick up the tab for building an all-inclusive service.
The concept of universal service was originally established as part of a deal between the federal government and AT&T, which was allowed to maintain its telecommunications monopoly as long as it subsidized widespread telephone access, according to Wohl. But there is no single dominant player in the Internet access market, and the new telecommunications law will lead only to more competition among providers.
"Who is it you're going to tell, 'It's your job to pay for Internet access'?" Wohl asked. "You're scarcely going to go to some little Internet provider."
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