Can we save universal service?

Over the past two years, telecommunications deregulatory fever has spread to 20 states, with at least 14 more also considering legislation that would end or reduce conditions on phone providers. Many of those states have lifted rate or quality of service requirements, meaning that if you want a phone - even if there's just one provider - that company can charge whatever it wants, and can provide you with abysmal or intermittent service. Others, like Michigan and Florida, no longer require the local phone company to build lines or provide service to every household.

The phone companies have spent millions lobbying for deregulation. Why? According to a recent article in Wired, professor and technology expert Susan Crawford wrote, "the phone companies, seeing how expensive it would be to upgrade their networks to fiber, are fleeing their copper wires and focusing entirely on wireless access - leaving the wired field almost entirely to essentially unregulated cable companies."

Certainly, this is a potential disaster for the unionized workforce at the wireline companies, who earn decent wages and benefits... something the cable companies fight hard to avoid. But, it's also a social calamity.

According to Crawford, elimination of universal landline service creates serious inequality: " 'Digital divide' doesn't capture this situation. It's much worse than that. We are creating digital deserts in America. We already deregulated high-speed Internet access, hoping that competition would protect Americans. Because the cable industry had a cheaper upgrade path, we've ended up with their second-best set of lines dominating the markets in which they operate."

Crawford says that the market alone will not remedy the situation. And that we need legislation guaranteeing every American the right to connection using effective technology. Says Crawford:

"Every major investment in communications capacity we've seen so far as a country has been triggered by a change in government policy. Right now, we are sliding rapidly backwards. The People of the Internet might want to elect some different state legislators.

The Year in Review: The Status of Telecommunications Deregulation in 2012 (National Regulatory Research Institute, Jun. 2012)

Fiber Is the Key to U.S. Telecom Diet (Wired, July 4, 2012)
No right to a landline? (Speed Matters, Apr. 16, 2012)