The International Handbook of Telecommunications Economics, Volume II
Edited by Gary Madden
11. Universal service in the information age Jorge Reina Schement and Scott C. Forbes INTRODUCTION When Theodore Vail ushered universal service into the public consciousness with the famous phrase ‘one system, one policy, universal service’, he set in motion a policy discourse that created the twentieth-century telephone monopoly of AT&T and connected the United States (US) into the world’s foremost telecommunications system. Now on the cusp of the new century, AT&T’s monopoly no longer stands, yet the vision of interconnected homes and individuals communicating with each other regardless of distance still frames this sense of global telecommunications. The telephone and its penetration level remain benchmark telecommunications measurements and still allow crude multinational comparisons of relative price, performance and eﬃciency levels of communications networks. However, as telecommunications choices become more personalized and begin to rely heavily on Internet-centric digital technology, the notion that universal service means only ‘a telephone in every home’ is antiquated and relegates countries without established telecommunications infrastructures to an inﬂexible development path insensitive to the potential of new technology. All the universal services embraced and supported by US governments throughout history – from the Erie Canal and the post road, through public libraries and rural free delivery, to radio and telephone – represent attempts to fulﬁll the promise of democracy by enabling the political, economic and social participation of citizens. Indeed, every democracy needs an informed and involved citizenry, something possible only when its citizens have access to information about their government and the...
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