Abstract - The Information Society 12(3)

Universal service from the bottom up: A study of telephone penetration in Camden, New Jersey

Milton L. Mueller and Jorge Reina Schement

Ethnographic methods and geographic information systems were used to investigate the extent, causes and consequences of telephone disconnection in Camden, New Jersey. The results have significant implications for public policies intended to promote universal telephone penetration. Universal service is usually perceived as an issue for rural areas and the elderly, but the most extensive pockets of low telephone penetration are found in inner cities, where the problem is associated with the young, the transient, and ethnic minorities. The basic monthly rate paid by subscrib ers is usually thought to be the most important factor affecting affordability, but the data suggest that most marginal users are driven off the network by usage-related costs, and more generally by the problem of credit-worthiness. Given prevailing consu mption patterns in low-income urban areas, electronic redlining seems less of a threat than that poor Americans will, upon exposure to the advanced features of the national information infrastructure, buy services that they cannot afford.

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