Universal service in a ubiquitous digital network

Ethics and Information Technology 2 (4):211-221 (2001)
Abstract
Before there was the digital divide there was the analog divide– and universal service was the attempt to close that analogdivide. Universal service is becoming ever more complex in terms ofregulatory design as it becomes the digital divide. In order to evaluatethe promise of the next generation Internet with respect to the digitaldivide this work looks backwards as well as forwards in time. Byevaluating why previous universal service mechanisms failed andsucceeded this work identifies specific characteristics ofcommunications systems – in particular in billing and managinguncertainty – and argues that these characteristics underliesuccess or failure in terms of technological ubiquity. Developing a setof characteristics of services rather than a set of services is afundamental break with the tradition of universal service. In fact, theimplications of our proposal is that basic characteristics in theoffering of the service rather than the absolute price are critical toclose the digital divide: certainty of total charge, ability to avoiddeposits or disconnection via best effort service, and payer-basedcontrol of all charges. While all of these principles sound obvious infact none of these hold in the telephony network. Universal service hasevolved from common carriage (serve all with no discrimination) to aright to basic services (100% penetration). Universal service isnow discussed as the digital divide, as the access to information asopposed to services becomes increasingly critical. However, we arediscussing in this paper access to the bits and the network rather thanaccess to the information (or intellectual property) once connected. Theprovision of universal service is seen as a technical problem only in thatthe technology costs money – universal service debates have longbeen the domain of economists. Yet the design of protocols has been thedomain of engineers, the building of systems the corporate domain, andthe discussion of equity the interest of ethicists. The design ofprotocols can define the parameters of the corporate decision-makers,the variables of the economist, and the questions for the ethicist. Thedesign decisions made at the fundamental levels can make communicationsequity more or less likely. In this work I focus on the design ofprotocols for the next generation Internet, protocols which willfundamentally change the best-effort nature of Internet services.Building on the economic and ethnographic work of others I argue thatthe effects of protocols adoption on universal service can be predictedto some degree. By examination of past and current technologies Iexamine a set of technical mechanisms to determine how such mechanismsmight harm or enhance universal service. I define each mechanism (e.g.denial of entry) and offer observations about each particularmechanism''s implicit pricing assumptions. I close with a discussion ofinterest to ethicists and regulators on evaluating communicationsprotocols with respect to universal access. Protocols for developingmultiple qualities of service for packet-switched networks have focusedon economic efficiency (e.g. Mackie-Mason, 1995; Choi, Stahl &Winston, 1997; Shapiro & Varian, 1998), billing to encouragewidespread adoption of network innovations (e.g. Xie & Sirbu, 1985)and billing in a manner consistent with the underlying network (e.g.Clark, 1996). Here we examine a set of protocols which include varyingquality of service mechanisms with respect to the compatibility of theprotocols with universal access.
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