Friday, December 12, 2008

"It's an inauspicious time to decry helpful, even vital democratic initiatives in favor of ideology ..."

That's Chris Dannen of Fast Company, complaining that "President Bush has expressed disapproval of the free nationwide Wi-Fi proposal being considered by the FCC and Congress." He explains the proposal in this way:

The legislation, which is before Congress now, would require whoever buys the chunk of wireless spectrum being auctioned next year to set aside a quarter for no-fee service to rural areas that don't have broadband access.

The spectrum being auctioned, called the Advanced Wireless Services (or AWS-3) spectrum, is being vacated by television broadcasters, who must switch to wired digital broadcasting in January by federal mandate. That leaves a new swath of "white space" free to be leased by the highest bidder.

Without getting into the proposal itself, I want to point out this instance in light of the principle of universal service.

As I discuss in Network, the idea of universal service first meant simply the ability to place calls from any phone to any other. Later, it meant total market penetration: close to 100% of people who wanted phone service could obtain it. But in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it began to take on a new meaning, as a universally obtainable slate of services. Common services, such as call waiting, can be considered part of basic service once they achieve a certain level of market penetration. So the slate of services that define basic telecommunication is continually evolving; today's innovations become tomorrow's basic service.

The exigence for this? "[T]he assumption that access to up-to-date telecommunications is now the material basis for individuals' participation in democratic society" (Spinuzzi 2008, p.108, italics in original). We still pay a luxury tax for telecommunications service, but that service is now considered vital to our democracy. That's what jumped out at me about the quote above, which sounds passable now but would sound completely ludicrous in 1983.

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