Applying 'Universal Service' to the Net - a US Imperative

The 70-year-old Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is getting a fresh start. For the first time since it began in 1927 as the Federal Radio Commission, 4 of the 5 members are new to their positions. This is an unprecedented opportunity to assess how one of Washington's most important regulatory agencies is performing. But, regrettably, the commission's current approach could leave many Americans only partial citizens of our increasingly electronic commonwealth.

The feverish mergers of telecommunications giants make it seem that the FCC's biggest job is regulating competition. But such corporate couplings have overshadowed one of the commission's biggest tasks ever - an aggressive new attempt to achieve universal service. Although not defined in the original Communications Act, universal service has come to mean low rates for basic service, so that access to the telephone network is affordable for everyone who wants it.

Authorized by last year's telecommunications legislation, the commission is struggling to give the vague term new meaning. It has created a system for collecting funds from long-distance telephone callers and distributing them to schools, libraries, and rural clinics to ensure that these public institutions are connected to the Internet. Next year, these universal service funds will have up to $2.65 billion to disperse annually.

It is a massive undertaking and a laudable beginning. But it is likely to fall short of its mark and should lead us to look at other possible approaches.

The universal service funds are limited to paying only the telecommunications charges associated with getting those public institutions connected. That's only about 15 percent of the cost. There remain the far more difficult and expensive tasks of producing instructional software, training teachers, and equipping schools.

The commission's limited approach also does not fully deal with the haves/have-nots problem, since educational enrichments like home computers are still beyond reach of many children.

What can be done? The 1996 Telecom Act directs the commission to adopt policies that will accelerate the provision of advanced technologies to all Americans. If this isn't happening, the act calls on the commission to take immediate action. Policies that accelerate investment in new high-speed data communications technologies can bring services like the Internet to vast new audiences.

The choice is between today's low-speed computer networks, in which each person or institution needs an expensive personal computer to connect, or higher-speed networks that make it possible for very low-cost "network computers" to substitute for expensive PCs. If we really expect this new medium to be accessible to all Americans, we should ensure that at least a little bit of computer connectivity is available to nearly everyone.

It's crucial that the FCC sees universal service not merely as an economic benefit for those who can't afford it, but a fundamental requirement for equal participation in society. The benefits are not just inclusion on the individual level, but the effects that universal access can have on the quality of our education, health care, and democratic institutions.

WE won't prosper for long if the Internet serves only to amplify the voices of the powerful. Neither universal suffrage nor universal public education were achieved in a single moment. This will be true of universal access to our newest medium, too.

Even in a time of economic prosperity, the costs of alienation from American society are everywhere, and are borne by all of us. The vast disparities in online access today are likely to be with us for more than a generation if they aren't addressed promptly. Until we achieve near universality in online access, the most exciting applications that could begin to change America and the lives of Americans will remain unexplored. This is the FCC's next agenda. It's time to begin.

* Lloyd N. Morrisett is president of the New York-based Markle Foundation.

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