June 16, 1998

THE BUDS OF UNIVERSAL SERVICE WERE PRUNED BEFORE THEY BLOSSOMED

by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—When the budget for Internet connections in schools and libraries was cut by almost half last Friday, the government disappointed more than the thousands of schools who had spent months drawing up plans to go online. It also discredited years of work by idealistic volunteers and non-profit groups. And the shame is that few if any of the Senators and journalists who pontificated on the universal service fund knew the historic ground on which they were treading so roughly.

The goal of bringing Internet access to the public is the goal of greater citizen involvement in policy-making, of alternative sources for education, of renewed access by the disenfranchised to jobs and markets. The earliest carriers of the dream were the community network builders of the 1980s, although the movement has been traced as far back as Community Memory in Berkeley, California in the 1970s.

The goal of community networking has been to provide resources to an entire community. At the beginning, students, computer hackers, and other citizens gave their time to set up the primitive networks that carried health information, news, job postings, and election materials to thousands. Community networking predated the popularity of the Internet, but became one of its earliest promoters when low-cost connections to the Internet became feasible.

It was the community networkers who first thought of wiring schools and libraries (and sometimes connecting them even more cheaply with wireless radios, a technology championed by networking pioneer Dave Hughes). In fact, the networkers placed terminals wherever they thought they could find interested people: city halls, laundromats—no place was too humble.

The community networkers also started the other exemplary movement to bring modern information technology to the masses, community centers. These are modest offices in lower-class neighborhoods that offer free or cheap access and training. In fact, whether or not the schools and libraries fund survives, community centers may be the true future of universal access.

Community networking has experienced its glitches—such as when the founding organization that promoted Free-Nets, the National Public Telecomputing Network, had to close its doors—but new organizations have picked up and carried the signal, like the Center for Civic Networking, the Association For Community Networking, and Neighborhoods Online. Community networking and community computing centers continue to grow and involve more people every year with relatively little publicity.

For a brief period, also, the Clinton Administration embraced a digital future. Gore ran his vice presidential campaign on a promise that everyone would have access to digital information and online civic participation.

An early committee set up by the administration, the Information Infrastructure Task Force, listed universal access as one of its core principles. Another branch of the administration, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration within the Commerce Department, gave millions of dollars in grants to community networks.

These were heady days, the last gasp of liberalism at the federal level. They came before the failure of the Clintons’ health plan and before the President adopted the Republican position on welfare cuts.

One can easily dismiss Gore’s expansive rhetoric and see it as just the echo of computer commercials. But the self-serving goals of the Administration (or the computer companies, for that matter) aren’t relevant here. Internet access really is a channel to greater information and self-expression, one that is desperately desired by the poor. One need only walk into a modern office and look at the equipment around you to see why they want to understand this technology.

When the Telecommunications Act of 1995 (which never passed) and of 1996 (which did pass) were debated, proponents of universal Internet service came out in strength. They could see that these bills, which reduced price regulation and permitted expanded mergers as a route to new services, gave everything to big communications companies and little to consumers. The public interest groups, small as they were in numbers and essentially incapable of winging campaign gifts, pounded on Congress to fund access for the poor.

When the Snowe-Rockefeller amendment to the telecommunications act earmarked some money in the universal service fund to help schools, libraries, and rural health clinics, the public interest community considered it a scrawny, minimal response to their moral crusade. But the fund did pass into law—and now this last vestige of concern for the lower classes is being threatened.

School administrators and teachers are always being lampooned as old-fashioned deadweights. They belied the accusation by submitting applications for wiring 30,000 schools over a period of six months. Across the country, volunteers entered the schools on “Net Days” to install wiring and hook up computers.

Nor were the applications all from schools in rich, well-educated communities, which one might expect to have the most knowledge and resources for such a venture. Knowing the barriers faced by poorer communities, the Schools and Libraries Corporation set up to handle the fund reached out with teleconferences and special materials.

The response from poor communities was impressive. Bonnie Bracey, an educator who has worked on the universal service plan, mentions as an example a school in Kentucky where 90% of the students get subsidized lunches—and now they’re getting wired, if the funds are still there. So the fund did not by any means turn into a hidden boost to the already affluent, like the favorite initiative of the conservatives—school vouchers.

Criticism of the school/library fund, the FCC, and the 2.25 billion dollars allocated on a yearly basis grew only after the system was in place and functioning. A few Senators from rural states—Stevens of Alaska and Burns of Montana—started out the complaints with the worry that the fund might take universal service money that would otherwise subsidize rural residents, but they were isolated and given little attention.

But a week ago a sudden shift—one of those inexplicable publicity coups that change life for all of us in a matter of days—took place. AT&T and MCI announced they would add a 5% charge to their phone bills to cover universal service. And suddenly a bevy of conservative Republicans sprang into attack against the school/library fund.

It didn’t matter that the school and library portion of the phone bill was only an estimated 1.5% percent of telephone company earnings. Or that the phone companies had been funding the other part of universal service (telephones in rural areas) for 60 years without a special charge on the bill. Or that the FCC had already reduced other charges to long-distance companies (the access charges they pay to local phone companies) by an amount greater than the 2.25 billion for schools and libraries.

There is no valid response to this event but cynicism. One must remember that this is an election year for Congress. Furthermore, Vice President Gore has avoided any contamination by the erotica surrounding the President and has managed to slip untarnished through the bizzare scandal surrounding the Buddhist temple contribution. It’s no surprise that Republican supporters have boisterously labeled the school/library fund “the Gore tax.” In doing so, they have tipped their hand.

There is no merit to the claim that the fund is a tax. Governments are always passing laws that cost businesses money (laws requiring safety procedures in the workplace, for instance) and the costs are certainly passed on to the customer—but they’re never called a tax. This fund is a transfer of wealth, but it’s one well-established in precedent because businesses have been subsidizing residential service and cities have been subsidizing the countryside for decades.

The conservatives have achieved their propaganda victory, however: they have divided citizens once again and turned our own children into the “other”—particularly children of the poor. Having cut their school lunches, watched their school buildings crumble, sundered them from their culture by cutting arts programs, and let their textbooks age over the decades, we are not about to give them access to advanced technology. But we can spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on NATO, with no visible purpose but to bully the Serbs.

Yes, the buds still live—1.275 billion dollars for programs this year. And Senator Burns has pledged to support the fund through a more explicit tax on phone use. But those grass-roots crusaders who gave of their time and skills to bring the public together electronically may have to continue their lonely, heroic efforts for a few decades more.


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