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Chapter 13
Grass Roots

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oligarchy of telecommunications companies that arose in the wake of the 1934 law shows how misguided that assumption was. And there is no reason to believe that a new law based on the same logic will be any more viable as a guide to opening up the digital frontier.[4]

But Barlow still has a point. Even though the original backbone of the Net was built with government money, far more of it has been created (or cobbled together) by commercial and personal interests, and there's no certainty that governments will be quick to provide access to what we think of as public data. The earliest appearance online of such important databases as the Securities and Exchange Commission database of companies was not provided by a government outfit but by the dedicated Carl Malamud. Malamud was also one of the first to experiment with Internet broadcasting and was responsible for setting up the Internet Multicasting service in 1994, using a public radio approach of listener and corporate sponsorship to broadcasting senate and congressional sessions as well as music, Internet Ta l k Radio and "Geek of the Week" interviews.[5]

Across Europe, although there is a greater tradition of public broadcasting (in return for a TV license fee), there is not such a great tradition of regarding data that was collected at the taxpayer's expense as publicly owned. In Britain, for example, laws and government papers are subject to copyright and are published by the Stationery Office at relatively high prices calculated to help recover costs.[6] Distributing the material via the Net for free was therefore a matter for debate (early reports are that the Stationery Office, like other publishers, is finding that putting the material on the Web actually increases sales). Similarly, there is less local and regional programming of all types, and the kind of public access U.S. cable TV companies are required to provide is nonexistent; however, cable TV companies are allowed to provide telephone services and are giving British Telecom the first competition it's ever had in that market.

The big question is what universal access means and what form it might take. We're certainly nowhere near such a situation today. Jock Gill, one of the people who masterminded the White House's connection to the Internet in 1993, estimated then that there were some pockets in the United States where as much as 20 percent of the population didn't even have telephones.[7] More recently, a 1995 Department of Commerce survey noted that the lowest telephone penetration is in inner cities (79.8 percent), while the lowest ownership of computers and modems is among the rural poor (4.5 percent).[8]

This is not a uniquely American pattern. Electronic Frontier Ireland (EFI) points out that although Ireland has made an international name for itself with telemarketing and hotline technical support services (Dell and Gateway are only two example of companies that use Irish telephone sales and support services), ensuring equal access is a high priority. The local dialing areas for Ireland's Internet service providers (ISPs), as EFI noted in 1995, are all in cities, but the Irish population is spread thinly across the countryside. This disparity worried the planners.

It will be no exaggeration to say those who fall behind will form an underclass: it will be very difficult for people not familiar with the technology to secure anything but the most menial of jobs. Moreover, as the technology becomes part of our social and political structures, these people could find themselves cut off and disenfranchised. Clearly, such an underclass could become the main ingrdient [sic] in a cocktail of social, political and economic disaster. It is a scenario we must avoid at all costs.

EFI's planning document concludes that universal access must be extended from the traditional telecommunications services to the new medium.[9] The report also states that costs must be reduced to as little as a quarter of current (1995) costs and blames high prices for slow take-up, noting that Scientific American compared telephone use in the United States and the United Kingdom and found that the average American household used its phones for more than an hour a day, compared to less than fifteen minutes for U.K. users. Irish phone rates,

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