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Internet

Is Clinton's Net plan for real?

Baseballs, hot dogs, apple pie--and Internet connectivity? Not everyone thinks that President Clinton's idea to hook up every classroom, seems like an all-American idea.

Baseballs, hot dogs, apple pie--and Internet connectivity? Not everyone thinks that President Clinton's idea to hook up every classroom seems like an all-American idea.

While for the most part, Netizens back the ambitious plan, some are wondering: Who's going to pay it?

Netscape Communications today endorsed the Clinton administration's idea to wire classrooms, one of a number of companies and individuals to praise the proposal. But many have been buzzing in cyberspace, wondering where the government will get the money.

"The question of providing Internet access to the schools is one that sounds very good," said Dave McClure, executive director of the Association of Online Professionals. "My question is, where is the funding going to come from? It has been floated in some policy discussions that it would be paid for by additional taxes on Internet service providers."

One of those ideas being floated comes from the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC, which regulates telephone service, has a committee that has been looking at restructuring universal service in light of the passage of the Telecommunications Reform Act this year.

Telephone companies now pay into a fund so that everyone can get telephone service. The idea is that the FCC may expand that coverage to include not only telephone connections but also Internet service, according to Greg Simon, the Vice President Al Gore's chief domestic policy adviser.

ISPs would pay into the fund, which would be used in part to wire schools. But some are questioning whether ISPs should be included in that group, especially because they are not yet directly regulated by the FCC.

While the government calls the universal service fund just that--a fund--McClure calls it something else: a tax, plain and simple.

And he doesn't like it.

"Are they planning to further impose taxes on telephone companies which then must pass onto consumers or are they planning to expand universal coverage to Internet service providers?" he asked. "In any case, you're talking about additional tax on a fledgling service. We're essentially a two-year-old industry. I can't think of a faster way to kill it."

In newsgroups, the situation is put more bluntly.

"Partisan politics aside, I think this single statement is sufficient reason enough for any ISP to vote against President Clinton," one Netizen said in a newsgroup discussion. "He obviously feels that Internet access is not a commercial commodity but a public utility, and will treat it as such."

Attorneys have been pondering, in their own electronic postings to each other, whether the FCC has jurisdiction over ISPs.

"Ordinarily the government can't step in and point to a particular Internet service provider or any other company and say you have to do this costly thing for the government," said Mark Lemley, an assistant law professor at the University of Texas School of Law. "In circumstances where the government does regulate rates and services, then they have the power to say you must provide universal service."

He added, "The FCC is considering regulating ISPs and the Internet--in part because one of the things you can do over the Internet is conduct a telephone conversation."

In an email exchange, another attorney said: "One could argue that we should treat ISPs as common carriers, but I'm not persuaded that it is necessary to do so. This is not a natural monopoly...The trend in the telecommunications field is away from regulation, and I don't know why we would want to buck that trend here.

"Of course, access is a valuable goal...If the government thinks it's worth getting involved in, it should do it through general federal revenue, which at least has the benefit of taxing a broad base."

The government saying that ISPs should subsidize Internet connectivity in schools through the universal service fund "would be comparable to the electricity company having to provide free electricity, General Motors having to provide free school buses, or publishers providing free text books," added Trotter Hardy, a law professor at the College of William & Mary. "They're all worthy ideas, but you're not supposed to force a private company to subsidize."

In any case, Trotter said, ISPs should not fall under FCC jurisdiction. "The ISPs are not regulated, common carrier monopolies. They're different. They are more like magazine publishers or newspapers."