Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski recently announced a plan that would expand the Universal Service Fund's Lifeline program to include broadband Internet service.
The concept of universal service dates to the Communications Act of 1934 and was expanded by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Today, the Lifeline program provides land-line telephone service to people who can't afford it. Those people use it for everything from finding a job to coordinating childcare to calling 911 during an emergency. Isn't the Internet just as much of a fundamental need?
That might seem crazy, but think it through. Today, when you need to read the news, do you turn to a newspaper? Probably not. Many areas no longer even have a local newspaper. You don't care about the news? Fine. Then think about how you find a job. You go online, to Craigslist, Dice or LinkedIn, right? What other choice do you have in 2012?
OK, you might say, but people can go to a library to get on the Internet. A nice idea, but it's hard enough to get a job without having to wait in line for two or three hours just to see what jobs are available. And how much longer do you think public libraries will be around? The current economy is aggravating libraries' eternally short funding, and the rise of e-books will hasten libraries' decline. The American Library Association, in its 2010-2011 Public Library Funding Landscape report, states, "A majority (59.8%) of public libraries reported flat or decreased operating budgets in FY2011, up from 56.4% in FY2010." Oh, and that reminds me: If you're poor, how are you going to access books, print or electronic, without the library system? You're not.
We can deliver broadband to all. The FCC has already called for the deployment of a nationwide free or low-cost wireless broadband network by 2020. When it was first proposed, the FCC estimated it would cost $15.5 billion. Sound like a lot of money to you? I guess it depends on your priorities. The war in Afghanistan, which has now lasted more than 10 years, has cost us well over $450 billion. Other developed countries are making big pushes to expand broadband access, and the U.S. already trails most of them in broadband penetration. Yes, the greatest penetration is in tiny places like Liechtenstein, but countries like South Korea, France and the U.K. have broader high-speed Internet access than the U.S.
Unless we do something, the digital divide, already quite bad, will only get worse. In 2010, the FCC reported that a third of Americans do not get high-speed Internet connections at home. At the time, Genachowski said, "In the 21st century, a digital divide is an opportunity divide."
He's right, and as things stand, a third of the nation's population is effectively unable to participate in our increasingly digital economy. Politicians from both sides of the aisle can talk all they want about getting manufacturing jobs for their home districts. Forget that nonsense. It's fantasy.
Industry managed to blunder away American leadership in the late 20th century, and the 21st century saw us outsource the remainder of our factory jobs to the rest of the world. Tomorrow's job markets will be digital. If we want the American people to work in them, they need broadband Internet, and they need it now.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.