FOR three generations, the United States supported a simple
tenet of technology policy: Everyone ought to be able to afford a
This policy, called "universal service," helped build the
world's most dynamic telephone infrastructure and enjoys wide
support today. But new technology and competition are posing
Does universal service still mean a low-cost home phone? Or is
it something more? Should government ensure that all Americans can
log onto the Internet (an information highway prototype)? Or is
interactive television the new standard?
"We're entering a whole new world of multimedia," says Alex
Mandl, executive vice president with AT&T. "Now, all of a sudden,
what becomes universal service? It's probably more than just a
At one end of the spectrum, technology optimists are pushing for
a sweeping redefinition of the term.
"We decided it was important for the economy and the society
that everybody should have access to a telephone," says Susan
Hadden, a public policy professor at the University of Texas at
Austin. The new model, she argues, should be interactive video
communications to the home. This link would give all levels of
society face-to-face contact with services ranging from health care
to job training to long-distance learning.
The Clinton administration has talked of something similar. Its
National Information Infrastructure would bring such interactive
service to every public school and library. But Professor Hadden
says she would go even further. "It's a lovely goal, but I hope
it's not the final goal," she says. "Nobody is going to watch TV
if they have to go to the library to watch. It has to come to the
home to be effective."
Many policy analysts take a much more conservative approach.
"I'd prefer to see these decisions about what people want to
consume made by the consumers themselves," says J. Gregory Sidak,
resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a
conservative think tank in Washington. "Instead of having an
economy car, maybe we're mandating a Lear jet. That can be very
Tied into this question of universal service is another problem:
Who will pay for it? Old formulas do not work anymore.
Originally, the idea was a quid pro quo. The federal government
gave AT&T a monopoly business; in return, AT&T would provide
low-cost residential telephone service. …