The Information Society


Letter from the Guest Editor Harmeet Sawhney

16(2) 2000

Special Issue: Manifold Facets of Universal Service

Something peculiar happens when a big idea is actualized into everyday practice. It gets transformed into an algorithm of sorts. In religion, divinity becomes a set of rituals. In law, lofty ideals of justice get reduced to legal procedures. In telecommunications policy, universal service has become a subsidy "mechanism" for channelizing funds towards socially desirable goals. There is nothing wrong with such transformations because they are the only way by which we can implement big ideas. The problem starts when the ritual overpowers divinity, the procedure overpowers justice, and the "mechanism" overpowers an ideal—universal service. Then we start losing sight of the real goal of our intense activity and get trapped into a procedural sinkhole.

Today, the debate about universal service in the regulatory arena is vigorous, but more about technicalities, the tweaking of the subsidy "mechanism" one way or another, than the grand idea itself. At such junctures when an ideal gets reduced to a formula, the time is ripe for a reexamination of the big idea and its relationship to the prevalent rules and norms which govern its implementation. As Black (1962) points out, while technical research within established frameworks can enhance the effectiveness of existing systems, "clearing intellectual jungles is also a respectable occupation" (p. 242). In order to cut through the conceptual clutter and prepare ground for new ideas to germinate, this special issue sets out to make a few clearings which can serve as staging grounds for further efforts. 

It consists of two types of papers: research articles and forum pieces. The research articles were submitted in response to the Call for Papers. By happenstance, the papers selected via the blind peer review process stay within the telephony based universal service framework. In order to expand the scope of the discussion beyond telephony to internet and other emerging technologies, the Forum with invited thought pieces was added. 


The six research articles cover issues related to rationale, subsidies and beneficiaries, and politics of universal service. 

Preston & Flynn draw on Adam Smith's writings to show that the consumption norms or the bare essentials required by the poorest citizen to function in a society have varied across societies. However, the fact that something is a consumption norm does not by itself justify universal service policies. The reason why we have universal service policies for the telephone but not for the car is that it has a political dimension: without a telephone, a citizen cannot participate in the political process. Here they draw on Marshall's work on citizenship to argue that access to telephone is a social right which makes civil and political rights meaningful.

While Preston & Flynn provide a historically informed justification for universal service, Bar & Riis urge a break from the past in our thinking about it. They point out that in today's information economy connectivity is critical for innovation processes which fuel entrepreneurial activity. In this context, universal provision of advanced telecommunications services will expand the scale of innovation activity by drawing in a broader range of participants. They therefore argue that we need to go beyond the past justifications—welfare and network externalities—for universal service and think about it as a vital investment for the growth of the entire economy.

In complement to the previous two papers on the rationale for universal service, Schecter examines questions related to how it should be funded. It combines the output of cost proxy models estimates for Colorado with Census household income data to examine the possibility of developing competitively neutral funding mechanisms for universal service which do not rely on a high cost fund. His analysis reveals that if the telephone service is priced as a tax, ranging between three-fifths and three-quarters of one percent of the annual household income in Colorado, there would be no need for an explicit subsidy mechanism. 

Schement & Forbes, on the other hand, profile who needs subsidized service. They use data from census, FCC reports, and other sources to identify who are phoneless, where they live, and what the reasons are for their phonelessness. Their research indicates that the phoneless do not constitute a homogeneous group either in terms of their demographics or their geographical location. It also shows that the factors contributing to phonelessness are diverse, multiple, and originating from local sources. They therefore recommend a move away from nation-wide universal service policies to more localized ones. 

Goggin & Newell focus on the needs of people with disabilities. According to them, universal service policies over the years have mainly focused on availability and affordability of telephone. However, availability and affordability by themselves do not ensure that the service is accessible by people with special needs. Goggin & Newell therefore push policy makers to expand the scope of universal service to include accessibility. They point out that the benefits of accessibility would go beyond the people with disabilities to the general population.

While all the previous papers urge "forward movement," Skogerbo & Storsul strike a less optimistic note. They employ an institutional dynamics framework to analyze the contextual factors which shaped the development of universal service policies in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway. Their analysis shows that the prospects of expansion of universal service are weak in those countries since the interest groups opposed to it are much better organized and networked than those who support it. 


In this section four thought pieces examine the implications of expanding universal service to internet and other emerging technologies. While the first two papers critique current efforts, the last two offer ideas for alternative approaches. 

Gillet criticizes the preoccupation of policy makers with physical connectivity to the internet. She argues the focus should be instead on the citizens' ability to use the internet, and highlights the role of government in the area of education. For end user equipment, she feels that policy-makers should monitor diffusion of new technologies and intervene only in those rare cases where there is an obvious need for subsidies. 

Strover extends the above criticism to the assumptions underlying the 1996 Telecommunications Act. She observes that the vendor bias is evident in the term the "last mile." When viewed from the consumers' perspective, this same connection is the "first mile" which connects them to the larger network. The first mile perspective requires not just a change in label but a reorientation of priorities towards interface devices, software, training, and all the other capabilities the citizens need to participate in our increasingly networked society.

Lievrouw expands the frame of reference beyond the technology and the individual user to the overall information environment of a community. She presents a model which conceptualizes the interface between the institutionally generated information environment and the personal domains of individuals. Her model suggests that we should think of universal service in terms of information environments and not just technological systems.

Sawhney cautions against injudicious initiatives inspired by the symbolism of universal service. While equality is a laudable ideal of any democracy, it should not be blindly pursued in the case of information resources. Unlike food and energy, there is no "bare minimum" of information that everybody needs for survival. Since information is of value only when the recipient needs it, we need to be discerning about which resource we universalize. He suggests that resources used in the communication mode should be universalized, but those in the information access mode should be provided on a need only basis.

As a collection, the research articles and forum pieces reexamine our fundamental assumptions, provide new insights into the situation on the ground, and push our analysis up a few conceptual notches. They all have a germ of an idea which is unusual and therefore can possibly take us in a new direction. In many ways, this special issue is an incubator of ideas with unusual potentialities which can help us break out of the confines of the established mindset and think about universal service in a fresh way. Hopefully, this endeavor will bear fruit over time.

TIS’s publisher, Taylor and Francis,  is now making an electronic full text version of this journal available at no additional cost with an institutional subscription that is priced at less than $200. This new service is an exceptional bargain for large organizations, such as  universities. It is possible to site license one electronic subscription for  the use of  all students, faculty, and staff for the price  of one institutional subscription. TIS’s web site (URL above) includes additional information about this opportunity.

Please check our Indiana University-Bloomington web site for news on forthcoming issues, calls for papers, and abstracts of articles from previous issues. Prospective authors may reach us via email at

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