Universal Service in an All-IP World: All the People, All the Places

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Today Public Knowledge released a white paper about the tech transitions, authored by Jodie Griffin. The following blog post provides some background. The paper can be downloaded here.

Most Americans can’t remember a time when they did not have access to a telephone, whether in their neighborhood, their house, or more recently, their back pocket. This almost ubiquitous availability of telephones is not an accident. For decades we have made it our goal to ensure that 100% of Americans have access to communications services that allow them to participate in our society. Today, 97% of Americans have access to a telephone line thanks to carefully thought out policy decisions born out of our commitment to Universal Service.

Universal Service is the principle at the heart of American policymaking in the communications sector: that the tremendous benefits communications services offer to society should be universally available. We are committed to connecting “all the people, all the places.”[1] And the strides we have made towards this goal are commendable. The reach of our telephone network has positioned our country as a leader not only in communications services, but also in efforts to create an inclusive society. Further, the open, reliable network we nurtured became a platform to launch technological advancements. Fax machines, phones, medical alert monitors, cell phones, and the World Wide Web, among other devices and applications, were all developed on the shoulders of a reliable landline network.

But, the way the network works is changing. Carriers have traditionally used copper wires and TDM technology to bring telephone service to your home and business. Now, they have begun to transition to networks that use wireless, fiber, and/or Internet Protocol (IP) technologies. This change in the underlying technology of our telephone network is a process called the Technology Transitions.

The transitions present us with the opportunity to improve communications services for all Americans, and most importantly, to reaffirm our commitment to provide all people and all places with the tools that allow them to participate in our society. Public Knowledge’s new “Universal Service in an All-IP World” paper helps us think through the questions we must grapple with if we are to continue to uphold 100% access as our communications policy goal, regardless of the technology underlying the network. The paper provides us with a brief history of the communications network in our country and the policies that shaped it. This history is a departure point to ask ourselves what basic communications service means in today’s world, how we should measure it, and what tools policymakers can use to achieve universal access in new technologies.

In essence, these are the same questions that policymakers faced when planning how to extend telephone lines to every home, especially in low-income and rural areas. The technology might be different, but the need to communicate is the same.

As policymakers, carriers, advocates, and the public engage in this conversation, “Universal Service in an All-IP World” helps us use our history and achievements to develop effective, modern communications policy. This is a must-read for every stakeholder interested in the evolution of communications services in our country. At its core, “Universal Service in an All-IP World” asks us to envision the future of our communities and our ability to connect with one another.

 

[1] Guiding principle from the National Rural Assembly, a coalition of rural organization

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