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Issue of Universal Access Splits Readers

October 12, 1994

Last week, The Cutting Edge asked for readers' thoughts on whether universal access to communications services--a staple of national communications policy for many decades--can or should be preserved in an age when competition and new technology are changing the cost structure of basic telephone and television services and making many new services available.

Should emerging telecommunications providers give subsidies to low-income consumers, or can the free market be counted on to make these services available 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?

The mail was almost evenly divided between those who favor some kind of support for universal service and those who are opposed. Many respondents singled out the public libraries as a logical avenue for providing broad access to electronic information services.

Below is a sampling of the responses.


Historically, universal service has been defined as minimal, or "lifeline," service. It has never implied full access to the broad spectrum of available services.

It seems inappropriate to isolate the challenge of universal service as it applies to electronic information services when non-electronic information services such as newspapers, books and magazines are not offered to individuals under any type of universal access policy. Perhaps, as public libraries and schools provide a tax-driven method of accessing non-electronic information at no cost to the end user, they must take it upon themselves to offer a no-cost method of accessing electronic information.

To subsidize access to electronic information services on an individual basis is inconsistent with the public policies regarding non-electronic information already in place.




Universal service benefits the very young and the very old. Television is the American baby-sitter and the nation's companion for the elderly. Telephones are the lifeline of the aged and the comline of teen-agers. Subsidies to provide universal telecommunications service will allow entry of creative (if penniless) youngsters and tap the information wellspring of the mature.


West Los Angeles


I am very much opposed to passing the cost of services for the poor along to the rest of the users in the form of higher rates. The true effect of that would be to separate a group of people from access because they are not "poor" enough to qualify for subsidies and not "well off" enough to shoulder someone else's bill in addition to their own. If there truly is a need to assist the low-income people in this area, it should come out of the general tax rolls to which everyone pays a proportion relative to their means.




The benefits of furnishing universal service far outweigh the costs to all of us since empowerment of our citizens in our democratic society is vital for its survival. All of us should be willing to share whatever resources we can to enable a general format accessible to every American and possibly all world citizens.


Los Osos


Subsidies are killing our countries in more ways than one. To provide basic necessities like food, education and shelter is certainly one of my moral imperatives--subsidized access to electronic info services is not. Why work hard and save money to afford high-tech goodies if the government (i.e., taxpayers) are going to give them to you anyway?




"Can Universal Service Be Preserved in Information Age?" Yes, it must be or the divide between haves and have-nots will be even more extreme. However, the free market is not likely to help. Even tax credits would probably not be enough. Possibly a tax on each item (hardware, software both) could bring income enough for subsidies. The public libraries as well as schools must be involved in providing the how-to for the computer illiterate of all ages.




It is obvious that we must guarantee universal access to the information superhighway to everyone regardless of means. We will soon have access to over 500 channels of cable service which will bring us much closer to the universally cherished goal of having reruns of "Gilligan's Island," "The Love Boat" and "I Love Lucy" running 24 hours a day. Who can really say they understand American culture and society unless they've seen every episode of Gilligan's Island?

Of course, the Internet will play an increasing role in our lives. Profound discussions are going on right now in areas such as, alt.barney.die.die.die and the numerous Star Trek discussions that permeate the Internet.

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