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Universal Service To Universal Access
© 1995 - International Research Center



It is sometimes thought that there is a magic solution to building the Global Information Infrastructure (GII) - for example, that the answer is the Internet, or that it is broadband ISDN, or that it is interactive cable television, or that it is future generation wireless technologies. Personally, I do not believe that there is a magic solution of this kind that some "revolutionary technology" or "killer application" will conquer the world. It is more likely that the GII will be a "network of networks" and evolve out of existing technologies and services, just as communications has always done. Let me suggest that we also have a compass - a moral compass - that should point us toward paths that maximize values such as universal access, the right to communicate and diversity of expression. These values are fundamental not only to communications, but to the democratic evolution of mankind.
-- Pekka Tarjanne, Secretary General of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)

As we move from the traditional measurement of Universal Service by telephone penetration rates to attempts to quantify Universal Access, the variety of possible services and content and the wide range of delivery mechanisms hinder any easy definition. Early analysis of technology availability (computers and modems) against demographics, such as the recent National Telecommunications and Information Administration's "Falling Through the Net: A Survey of "Have Nots" in Rural and Urban America," indicate many of the same populations are underserved. Information "have nots" are disproportionately found in rural areas and the inner cities. Not surprisingly, they also closely track the distributions of telephone penetration for race, age, region, income, and level of education.

It is not likely that as formal and encompassing a program as supported Universal Service will arise to meet the needs of the "have nots" in the Information Age. But it is necessary that the same traditional populations are targeted by a majority of the many efforts and programs that are put in place. In the absence of a national definition and plan, though not without vision and support, states and localities must take the initiative to identify and participate in broader regional and national initiatives, and where those are lacking or not appropriate or adequate for their populations, define their own.

If systems like the Internet become critical parts of national and global infrastructure, then universal access to them will be vital. Public policies that encourage universal availability of access would be a logical and desirable outcome. I hope and believe that it will be possible to provide universal access through competitive cost reduction and where appropriate, business incentives. Alternatives that apply regulatory methods to achieve this goal are often found to be inimical to good business practice and therefore, artificial and risky at best.
-- Vint Cerf, VP of Data Architecture at MCI Communications Corp. and Internet pioneer