The Federal Communications
began discussions this week that could lead to a government
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
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
FCC regulations for Net under