Although the focus is squarely on promoting vigorous competition in a variety of telecommunications marketplaces, there are several provisions targeted directly at the public interest in the 1996 Act. One of these is the section pertaining to universal service, especially the language in Sections 254(h)(1) and (2) that provides for preferential access to basic and advanced telecommunications and information services for elementary and secondary schools, libraries and health care providers. As the Conference Committee pointed out, this provision is designed to promote universal access which "will assure that no one is barred from benefiting from the power of the Information Age."

Specifically, the intent of the section is that health care providers, K-12 classrooms and libraries will have "affordable access to modern telecommunications services that will enable them to provide medical and educational services to all parts of the Nation." Such modern telecommunications services could include dedicated data links to information resources and other public institutions. The use of such services would, in turn, lead to the presentation of "new worlds of knowledge, learning and education to all AmericansÐrich and poor, rural and urban."

The FCC, the recently appointed Federal-State Joint Board and the various state Public Utilities Commissions (PUCs) have a significant amount of work to do to implement these provisions over the coming months. It is likely that the rulemaking proceedings generated by these groups will see extensive comments filed by the affected entities: school districts, libraries, health care organizations and telecommunications providers. The hope is that the ultimate goal of the provision Ð at least one point for everyone in this country to access and benefit from continually advancing telecommunications servicesÐwill not be lost in all the potential bureaucratic wrangling. As noted in the March 1996 issue of American Libraries, Betty J. Turock, president of the American Library Association, feels that this provision will enable libraries to "provide information to all Americans who need it," and that it will further the Clinton Administration's goal of Information Superhighway access for every library and school by the year 2000.

The importance of universal access to advanced telecommunications services as a stepping stone to true universal service, and its potential to help close the gap between information haves and have-nots, is pointed up by the success of a number of universal access projects currently in place around the country. One such endeavor, Access America, a project of the Fairfax Cable Access Corporation (FCAC) in Fairfax, Va., is especially notable in that it represents a public access television and radio center expanding its role in public access to cyberspace. Officials at FCAC and other public access centers across the nation believe that this type of access is the next logical step in turning traditional public access television centers into broad-based community telecommunications access and learning centers.

Computer literacy and advanced services

There are many reasons why this type of project is important. First, for many people, something as simple as accessing the Internet initially seems as complicated as understanding Comet Hyakutake's origins. Facilities like Access America allow the public the ability to obtain computer literacy in a non-threatening environment.

Second, continual, ready access to a personal computer and a connection to the Internet are still not the norms for most Americans. As for other forms of education, socioeconomic status plays a role in levels of computer literacy, as well as ability to access telecommunications services. Access America helps equalize this situation by providing training, computers and free access to the Internet at its facility for any that need it. Third, the Access America project is facilitated in large part through partnerships with private industry. Such facilitation indicates, as Congress discerned, that private participation in universal access efforts, through partnerships and preferential or no-cost service access, can have significant positive effects in fostering the public interest in this area.

The City of Fort Collins, Colo. Public Library's public access computers project offers a good example of how local governments and their public libraries can work to help facilitate universal access. In the fall of 1995, Fort Collins launched the project by providing two computers, shared T-1 Internet access and educational classes on the use of computers and Internet research tools. To date, this project has been very successful.

The computers are in continual use; so much so that a private sector grant was obtained to double the number of available computers. As with Access America, the focus is to provide computer literacy and access to advanced services to the community, and here again, it's clear that assistance by the private sector to public sector efforts can play a major role in helping these efforts evolve.

When you employ special measures, even one as simple as a pair of binoculars, Comet Hyakutake becomes a lot more than a cosmic fuzz ball. With a telescope, it even becomes a spectacular celestial event. Similarly, if the special measures provided for in the 1996 Act are employed in the appropriate way, it will help ensure clear access to the coming universe of telecommunications services for all members of the public.

Contact Tom Robinson at: