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Electronic web may elude poor Expensive access widens class gulf


When interstate highways stitched the nation together in the 1950s, many of the towns they bypassed withered and died. Now information highways -- vast computer networks that will bring voice, video and data services into the home -- promise to link Americans in a new way.

But many fear they, too, could bypass whole communities, including the nation's poor, disabled and elderly.

"To the extent that you don't have money, you won't have access," said Allen Hammond, who directs the Communications Media Center at New York Law School. "Now you start to create knows and know-nots and haves and have-nots based on their ability to pay for information. You could have a situation where not just individuals, but entire communities may be placed outside" the national information web.

With information highways expected to create $3.5 trillion worth of jobs, markets and services, as well as new chances for education and political participation, being outside could carry a high price, access advocates say.

"Increasingly, people who do not have access will be less likely to have jobs, more likely to be poor," New York Gov. Mario Cuomo told a state telecommunications conference in June.

Information highways are only beginning to take shape. But concerns about access to them already are fueling a national debate as regulators, special interest groups and the telecommunications industry grapple with this basic question: What are citizens entitled to receive, and at what price?

The debate revolves around the legal concept of "universal access." In 1934, federal law required American Telephone and Telegraphto provide affordable and easy-to-use telephone service for the public good.

In 1984, when AT&T; divested itself of local phone service, its monopoly ended. But local phone companies still must provide universal basic service.

Now a variety of companies -- including cable firms -- are competing to provide local telephone service and new information services. The change raises a host of questions:

Can such competition ensure universal access? Or must the state still regulate access?

If rules are still needed, is it fair to apply them to only the local phone companies and not to the new competitors? And in an age of mixed voice, video and data communications, what should basic service include?

Those questions are just starting to be considered by the U.S. Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, according to a staff member.

Cable access now may be a relatively trivial matter, except for sports fans and news junkies. But cable may well become the means to bring job training, schooling, working and shopping into the home.

If access to cable means a better job or education, it becomes a critical commodity, said Mr. Hammond.

"We know now that a significant number of low- and middle-income people rely on [television] news for their information about public affairs," Mr. Hammond said. "What happens to the people who can't buy that stuff?"

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