Universal Access to an Advanced Information Infrastructure

by Mark Stevens Berte and Chris Bjornson

Universal Access to the Internet will never become a reality unless we understand how the Internet can be made relevant to individuals and the communities in which they reside. A group of nine individuals participated in a policy research project at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs concerning community access to the Internet and information technology. This project, entitled "Bytes in Low-Income Communities," has allowed our group to see what community access really means in terms of offering individuals and communities opportunity provided by the information superhighway. It has also pointed out some of the problems that will arise from the lack of access and the difficulty of providing low-income communities access to this new technology.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. Definitions

  3. Importance of Universal Access to the Advanced Information Infrastructure

  4. Underserved Populations

  5. Components of Universal Access

  6. Recommendations

  7. Conclusions

  8. Endnotes

  9. Related Sites


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As technology changes the way society interacts, steps must be taken to ensure that people are not excluded from access to advanced telecommunications networks, especially the Internet. The Internet holds great promise for improving the educational, economic, social and political capabilities of all people. However, the Internet can't help those who don't have access to the technology necessary to use it.

Information for this paper comes from the practical experiences during our policy research project at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, "Bytes in Low-Income Communities," and from examining the issues that surround public access to the Internet. Our experience provides insight into the importance of Universal Access and a glimpse at how this affects populations that are underserved. These underserved communities can gain access to advanced telecommunication technology by bringing forth the issues of availability, affordability, usability, and standards of interoperability to policy makers and private sector players.


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Before one can discuss the term Universal Access to the information superhighway, it is necessary to define the term "information superhighway." According to the National Telecommunications Infrastructure Agency, the information superhighway is comprised of:

the physical facilities used to transmit, store, process, and display voice, data, and images. It [also] encompasses a wide range and ever-expanding range of equipment including cameras, scanners, keyboards, telephones, fax machines, computers, switches, compact disks, video and audio tape, cable, wire, satellites, optical fiber transmission lines, microwave nets, televisions, monitors, printers, and much more.(1)

This information infrastructure gives people greater choice and control over the information they transmit. As more and more communications channels and options become available, consumers will have greater choice over the messages they want to receive. Control will also become a meaningful concept as users become the masters of the messages they send. No longer will users be limited to transmitting simple voice signals to another user over a telephone line. Individuals will be able to digitally disseminate video, audio and data images and information to all those who are connected to the network and who choose to receive the messages.

The information superhighway can be compared to the physical transportation networks such as the different roadways in the United States. Roadways were built in the as a public good. Some communities have toll roads, but by and large, roads are open to the public with the minimal restrictions: everyone on the road must obey the traffic laws. In addition to providing the infrastructure, government also provided mass transportation for people who could not afford their own vehicles. Government decided that transportation was important enough of a public good to warrant subsidies. In this instance, government not only made the network of roads available to the public, but also made sure that everyone (specifically low income people) could use this network. If society places a value on access to the information superhighway in terms of the roadways of the Internet, it would follow that this public good should be addressed by public policy.

As with roadways, private companies actually built the roads and it is likely that private companies will deploy the information superhighway as well. However, government's role is to make sure the marketplace incentives guide its development in a manner that makes it accessible to all communities. Corporations that provide access to the Internet (hardware, software, connections,...) work on a profit motive. Currently, the new telecommunication infrastructure is being placed in the parts of a community that can afford it and provide a reasonable path to profitability for providers. Poor areas are not as profitable as more affluent communities. In order to prevent an inequitable distribution of these new networks, government needs to ensure that they are made available to all areas, regardless of cost. This is the same issue as providing telephone service when that medium of communication was created sixty years ago.

A re-statement of the goal of universal service for advanced telecommunications networks could simply be state as "connecting each to all." A re-codified goal of advanced universal service could be stated as:

To make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, regardless of location or disability, a switched, broadband telecommunications network capable of enabling users to originate and receive voice, data, graphics, and video services.(2)

Universal Access would take this one step further and could be described as:

Making available, so far as possible, to all the people of and communities within the United States, access to an available, affordable, usable and standardized communications network capable of enabling users to originate and receive voice, data, graphics, and video services.

Universal Access, essentially, applies the principles of universal service to the evolving applications of the Internet.

Importance of Universal Access to the Advanced Information Infrastructure

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Connecting everyone to the information superhighway is important because it enhances society's ability to communicate. Democracy is enhanced by the free flow of ideas because the communication of ideas allows people to make informed decisions. The Internet allows a person to communicate to other people by using electronic mail, file-transfer-protocol (FTP), the World Wide Web and a host of other methods. Electronic mail is as important as regular mail because it allows people to send digital messages to people over a network of wires. FTP is a way that a person can download information to or upload from the Internet. The Web is a very important vehicle for communication because it allows a person to publish information for the public to view. This means that a person does not have to go through a traditional publishing method to try and get his or her message out to the public.

All three of these methods are limited by the number of people who have email accounts, Web pages, Internet access, modems, computers, and most importantly, the education to be able to use the technology. In other words, the more people that are on a network the more valuable the greater number of people that are connected to it. This principle of economic efficiency is important to the idea of Universal Access. With more people on the Internet, more people can be reached and more content becomes available. As with the telephone, this exponential increase in the network's value makes Universal Access all the more important. At a 1993 NTIA hearing on universal service, it was noted that "the power of the network increases as more and more users are connected."(3)

Universal Access to advanced telecommunications is important for at least four reasons. The first is information. Several studies have shown that individuals who use computer-based communications have more accurate information about matters of political, professional, and organizational concern than peers who do not.(4) Different levels of access to computer-based communication technology, then, may further stratify individuals and create information have-nots alongside the "information elite," who have computers, modems, and access to network services from home.(5)

The second justification is affiliation. Electronic gatherings are just as important as digital documents. Constraints on network access will become constraints on affiliation. To the extent that civic and social alliances increasingly rely on computer-based interactions, less- than-universal access poses a significant policy problem.(6)

Networks also affect political participation. For on-line groups, characteristics such as age, race, gender, position, and socioeconomic level are far less likely to determine interaction patterns, leadership roles, decisionmaking influence, and other outcomes in comparison to groups that meet in person. As civic and political groups increasingly rely on electronic networks, these networks could help them overcome status-linked barriers to full participation in social dialog and public life. However, if access opportunities follow traditional socioeconomic lines, these barriers will be augmented by the emerging information infrastructure.(7)

Finally, because economic efficiencies are created, economic benefits will accrue. This is true for individuals, who can offer increased skill value to employers as a result of technical proficiency and for firms who can use technology to leverage competitive business advantages. One economic benefit from the NII is electronic commerce. People can purchase entertainment, information, and products via information networks. Also, computer skills can lead to better employment opportunities. A Time magazine article recently reported that "a working person who is able to use a computer earns 15 percent more than someone in a similar job who cannot."(8)A recent Office of Technology Assessment report states that "unequal access to these resources leads to disparate advantage, and ultimately to inequalities in social and economic opportunities."(9) This makes sense because the usage of technology in the marketplace creates a competitive advantage for firms.

We were able to witness the potential economic effects firsthand. Yolanda Thomas participated in our "Nothin' But Net" event last fall at the Booker T. Washington Family Learning center. At the time, she was living in a low-income housing development with her two children and her niece. Applying what she learned at Nothin But Net, Yolanda realized a way to visualize several job and housing opportunities. She has moved out of the housing development and gone from being an Americorps volunteer to a paid position with the City of Austin.(10)

Underserved Populations

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Who are the populations that are, and may continue to be, underserved by information networks? Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the "Have Nots" in Rural and Urban America is the Department of Commerce's study on the information inequity that currently is present in the United States. The disenfranchised are people who live in urban centers and in rural communities. Demographically, blacks and Hispanics are much less connected than white populations. Also, "the less that one is educated, the lower the level of telephone, computer, and computer-household modem penetration."(11)

In addition to the Department of Commerce's study, The Rand Corporation examined Census data to analyze the differences in access along income, education, race/ethnicity, ages, sex and location factors over the past five years. Their analysis indicates that the gaps are widening over time according to income and education lines. The gaps are remaining constant over time for race/ethnicity and age. They are also narrowing in terms of sex and location.(12) This analysis suggests that access to computer networks in low-income communities is a problem that is worsening over time. This disparity is happening while these networks are becoming more socially, economically and politically valuable. The inability to connect to the information superhighway could seemingly be an insurmountable barrier to upward economic mobility in the not-too-distant future, while access to the networks will provide the stage for individual economic opportunity.

In our observations, we found adults who had not been exposed to the Internet, children who only saw computers at school, the use of the computer as simply a toy rather than a resource and other problems brought about by the seeming non-integration and non-application of the Internet in the lives of the communities.

The Rand survey indicates the technology gap based on education and economic status is widening. This is a disturbing trend as Larry Irving, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce overseeing the NIIA for the Clinton Administration indicated:

One of the things that concerns us is a widening gap between the affluent and the poor, and information technologies can widen that gap. If the country doesn't act to get the poor on-line, we're going to have increased social problems and increased poverty.(13)

The problems for attaining universal access include getting the hands on the machines, affording its usage and knowing how to utilize the machines. From these trends, the public challenge emerges. How can the national information infrastructure be developed in a manner that minimizes rather than increases socioeconomic disparities in our society? Public policy should be designed to address this question.

Components of Universal Access

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There are four major components to access as it pertains to the information superhighway. A simple equation to describe access to the advanced telecommunications infrastructure could be stated in an equation:

Availability + Affordability + Usability + Interoperability = Access.

The advanced networks of the information superhighway will be built. The public policy challenge is how to open these networks so that there are no barriers to full access. To make access to the Internet a reality, government should consider policy options that address all of these areas for the content of the Internet, the physical infrastructure of hardware, software and connections and the networks themselves.

Component 1: Availability

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Government needs to make sure that advanced telecommunications networks are available so that they can connect communities. One way to do this would be for government to support community network sites such as libraries, schools, and formal community centers. It is also important to provide Internet access to other informal community gathering places that are sometimes described as third places such as restaurants, recreation centers, and churches. These mediating institutions are crucial for the model of getting low income communities connected to the Internet, since the current consumeristic model will not connect "unprofitable" areas.

Texas is leading the way for other states by creating the Texas Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund, which attempts to address inequality to advanced telecommunications. However, TIF is limited in that it is only looking at the traditional areas of libraries, schools and health care centers. To make the Internet affordable and accessible to all communities, efforts must be made to fully integrate the Internet into all aspects of community life and these public measures should not be limited to simply the school, library or hospital doors. It must take third places into account.

One of the most innovative means for "wiring communities" is the creation of Freenets. There are a number of community-based networks such as Austin Free-Net, the Big Sky Telegraph, Prairienet, SeniorNet, Latinonet, the Santa Monica Public Electronic Network, the Ozarks Regional Information Network and others.(14)

In our endeavors this year, we partnered with Austin FreeNet. AFN is developing the framework for Austin to be a truly wired community and is dedicated to using the Internet and other emerging technologies to connect people with information, services, and people. If the availability component of Universal Access were a reality, then there would be a sufficient number of locations in each community where Internet access could be reached. In addition, a system of electronic mail would be open to all.

Component 2: Affordability

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As can be seen from reading The Economic Case for Public Subsidy of the Internet by Sandra Schickele, affordability is a primary concern for low-income users of telecommunications and computing technology. The government should examine ways to create a "mass transit" system for the information superhighway by utilizing the universal service provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 required the Federal Communications Commission to redefine the concept of universal service in a manner that made sense for advanced networks. The FCC has begun the process of appointing a universal service board to make the determination of what advanced universal service will be and how it will be funded. It should, at the very least, take into account how to make access to e-mail affordable for all communities as well as access to the wires of the telecommunications networks. While the FCC is not required to act in this manner, doing so would expand the advanced network's capability and value.

The affordability component of Universal Access would remove cost as a usage driver for the information superhighway. This would allow for full exploration of the opportunities for personal enhancement off the Web. In Yolanda Thomas' case, the affordable access to the Web meant she could figure how to get a job and find a new place to live. When the access is affordable, then it can customized to each person's needs.

Component 3: Usability

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To be connected to the information superhighway, each individual must become a driver of a complex machine. Some level of training, is needed in order to assure that the machines and networks in place complement the ideas, skills and knowledge of their users. Government should address this aspect that is particular to the Internet by funding training centers in low income communities to show people how to use the various equipment and the software of the Internet. This is very important because low income communities already have the disadvantage of not having computer access in the home, the education or time to learn how to use the Internet. It will create the notion that the community is supposed to be wired. This will allow for greater application and integration of the Internet in our daily lives as people will be able to explore what the Internet can do for them personally.

Without basic training, available technology is wasted. At one of the local community sites we visited, there was no training or guidance given. The impact was that the computer was not integrated into the operations of the community center and when it was used by the children participating in the Center's activities, they merely used it for entertainment.

This is an area where the community freenets can be especially helpful. They can provide a means for training communities in how to use the Internet. In our project, Austin Free-Net is coordinating with the public libraries and community volunteers to make sure that the computers have technical expertise and trainers at their disposal. The theory behind this is that once one person in the community is trained, they can train others until a snowball effect is realized and the community becomes wired.

Component 4: Interoperability and Standards

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Government should make sure that standards are in place to ensure interoperability and usability among different network protocols. Given that many competing corporate players are providing services, standards may be needed at various levels of interconnect and addressing to allow growth of a truly "universal" system. Key areas where standards should be developed include having:

Addressing the question of standards removes technical barriers to the provision of universal access to e-mail within the United States. The standards that have evolved over 15 years within the Internet for electronic mail provide a proven backbone for a set of core services adequate for the evolution of a nationwide e-mail system.

Standards will help insure that the systems are universal rather than fragmented and exclusionary. This will increase the value of the networks and keep people from becoming disconnected. It will also have the effect making the components of availability, affordability, and usability much easier because the operating focus for the Internet will be singular rather than fragmented. To have standards, government regulation may be required and oversight to insure acceptable standards will definitely be necessary. In the same way, upgraded technology can be readily distributed if necessary.


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Based upon the above criteria for Universal Access, the authors of this paper recommend that community networking be promoted and facilitated to the greatest degree possible by public, private and community sources. This will offset the fact that the private sector is not currently providing services in low-income communities. It will also allow local communities to become more independent and give them more of a say as to shaping policy.

Specifically, public funding and support of community networking efforts should be greatly expanded. These are the organizations that are going to insure the availability and usability of the networks in real terms for their communities. Another area that needs to be explored is the feasibility of providing universal email as advocated by the Rand Corporation and Sandra Schickele. This is a means for seeing that the Internet and its interactive capabilities are affordable in real terms to everybody.

Expanding the notion of universal service is another area that must be considered. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 sets a framework for updating the concept and suggests that specific efforts be made to link schools, libraries and health care facilities to the information superhighway. This should be expanded to include "third places" where people gather as well so that there is greater availability in the community and a real means for integrating the technology into the daily lives of communities.

Finally, insuring standards and interoperability may require regulation or oversight from the government. However, this seems to be a logical means for guaranteeing continued and growing access to a highly-valued and widely-used network.


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Our PRP has provided Internet demonstrations to low income residents, most of whom could not afford the technology to access the Internet. This availability was only temporary, however, since the computers used for our "Nothin' But FreeNet" event were only used for that particular day. During this event, students showed the participants the basics of using the computers and the software. After the initial introduction, they were able to access information on their own. Currently, the participants are organizing to build a coalition to have their collective voices heard in the discussion about public access to the Internet.

Implementing these four components of Universal Access can ensure that disparities based on socioeconomic status are decreased rather than exacerbated by the information superhighway. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 may be a first step in developing a national strategy for deploying information technology for all communities, regardless of education or income status. Now it is up to policymakers and communities to make sure that the Act is used properly and the information superhighway is built to all communities.


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(1) U.S. Department of Commerce, National Information Infrastructure Administration, "Agenda for Action," 1993. Return to body of text.

(2) U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Testimony of Susan G. Hadden, May 24, 1994, p.3. Return to body of text.

(3) Susan G. Hadden, Testimony before the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Public Hearing on Universal Service, December 16, 1993, p. 7. Return to body of text.

(4) Universal Access to email: Feasibility and Societal Implications (RAND Study), http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR650/, Chapter 2. Return to body of text.

(5) Ibid. Return to body of text.

(6) Ibid. Return to body of text.

(7) Ibid. Return to body of text.

(8) Suneel Ratan, "A New Divide Between Haves and Have-Nots?" Time, vol. 145 no. 12 (Spring 1995), pp. 25-6. Return to body of text.

(9) U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, "Critical Connections: Communication for the Future," Washington, D.C., 1992, p. 243. Return to body of text.

(10) Austin Chronicle, April 4, 1996. Return to body of text.

(11) Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the "Have Nots" in Rural and Urban America by the Department of Commerce, http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fallingthru.html Return to body of text.

(12) Rand, Chapter 2. Return to body of text.

(13) Rory O'Connor, "Study Calls for Email Access for Everyone," Austin American-Statesman, November 23, 1995. Return to body of text.

(14) Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, "The Evolution of Universal Service Policy in Texas." Policy Research Project, Report Series, no. 116 (Austin, Texas, 1995), pp. 60-63. Return to body of text.

Related Sites

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Federal URLs:

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, Section 254, "Universal Service" http://www.state.wi.us/agencies/dpi/www/us_sec.htm

The Final Report of the United States Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure http://www.benton.org/KickStart/nation.ensuring.html

Preparation for Addressing Universal Service Issues: A Review of Current Interstate Support Mechanisms by the FCC http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Common_Carrier/Reports/univserv.txt

Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the "Have Nots" in Rural and Urban America by the Department of Commerce http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fallingthru.html

State URL:

Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund http://www.state.tx.us/TIF/

URL Papers on Universal Access:

The Evolution of Universal Service in Texas. A Policy Research Project of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs http://apt.org/apt/lbjbrief.html

Universal Access to email: Feasibility and Societal Implications (RAND Study) http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR650

The Benton Foundation's Universal Service and Universal Access Virtual Library http://www.benton.org/cgi-bin/lite/Uniserv/

Connecting Each to All: Alliance for Public Technology (APT) Principles to Implement the Goal of Advanced Universal Service http://apt.org/apt/principles.html

APT Universal Service Link gopher://idi.net:70/11/.APT/Universal%20Service

The Economic Case for Public Subsidy of the Internet by Sandra Schickele ftp://ssugopher.sonoma.edu/pub/schickele.txt

The Internet and the Poor "Public Access to the Internet" JFK School of Government, May 27,1993 Richard Civille, Center for Civic Networking DRAFT http://www.cyberstation.net/~meme/cman/z/infopoor.html

The Information Highway is a Bunch of Hooey, Jim Carroll, C.A., J.A. Carroll Consulting, Information Highways Magazine, Summer 1994 http://www.cyberstation.net/~meme/cman/z/infohoo.html

The Information Railroad by Jon Bekken http://www.cyberstation.net/~meme/cman/z/infoRR.html

ACCESS: Not Just Wires by Karen Coyle http://www.cyberstation.net/~meme/cman/z/librarian.html

Massachusetts Institute of Technology--Class Titled, "Advanced Information Technology, Low Income Communities, and the City http://alberti.mit.edu/dusp/11.401/

Sites of that have more Sites that Discuss Universal Access:

Wisconsin Division for Libraries and Community Learning--The Telecommunications Act of 1996 http://www.state.wi.us/agencies/dpi/www/lib_nii.htm#telecom

Public Access Web Sites The 21st Century Project http://www.utexas.edu/lbj/21cp/publicaccess.html

The Telecommunications Association (UTC) http://www2.dgsys.com/~utc.legal/

Organizations that are interested in Universal Access URLs:

Alliance for Public Technology (APT) http://apt.org/apt/

The Civic Network http://www.civic.net:2401/

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