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FORUM : The Cutting Edge: Computing / Technology / Innovation : Can Universal Service Be Preserved in Information Age?

October 05, 1994

New communications technologies, ranging from on-line computer services to wireless telephones to interactive television, are undermining an idea that has long been a part of U.S. communications policy: universal service.

The old Ma Bell monopoly subsidized basic local phone service to make it widely accessible, and some of those subsidies are still built into telephone rate structures. Similarly, broadcast television, bankrolled by advertisers, can be received by more than 90% of U.S. homes.

Competition and new technology, however, have made such subsidies hard to sustain. But the idea behind universal service--that it's virtually impossible to participate fully in society without access to basic communications--is more relevant than ever. Some argue that the concept of universal service must be extended to a wide range of emerging electronic information services, perhaps by requiring companies to provide free or discounted service to schools and other public sites.

The telecommunications legislation that recently died in Congress would have addressed some of those issues, but not all of them. The Cutting Edge is interested in your views. Should emerging telecommunications providers give subsidies to low-income consumers, or can the free market be counted on to make these services affordable to all? How should such subsidies be provided? Should the principle of universal service be extended to new electronic information services, and if so, by what mechanism?

Send electronic mail to edge@news.latimes.com or fax responses to (213) 237-7837, or mail to The Cutting Edge, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Please keep your comments as concise as possible and include your name and telephone number. We will print a selection of responses next week.

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