Facing a Fork on the Information Super Highway

Dec 09, 2004

Commentary by Bill Bittner

Last week, in Pennsylvania, Governor Edward Rendell faced an opportunity to demonstrate a vision for the future when he was presented a bill that would restrict cities’ ability to provide free high speed internet to their residents. Depending on your perspective, the Governor either nobly defended the free enterprise system from government socialization or relegated a major portion of the cities’ residents to second-class Internet status. Citizens unable to afford high-speed Internet access will continue to be at a disadvantage and the Internet economy may continue to miss their participation. While not preventing local governments from subsidizing Internet access completely, the bill makes their efforts more difficult.

Now for a brief history lesson: In the summer of 1919, the Army conducted a transcontinental convoy going from Washington, DC to San Francisco. The convoy consisted of 81 motorized Army vehicles and crossed 3251 miles in 62 days. Dwight D. Eisenhower was a young Lieutenant Colonel sent along to observe the results. Later, while he was commander of the Allied Forces in WWII, Eisenhower saw how a national autobahn system allowed the German army to move quickly across the countryside. When he became president, Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act in June of 1956. His vision of an Interstate Highway System that would support the flow of goods across the vast reaches of the United States has supported much of our national expansion.

We all benefit today from Eisenhower’s foresight, and I dare say none of us could imagine conducting business in this country without the Interstate Highway System that was partially funded by Federal and State tax funds.

Just as the interstate highway system is nearly “free” to the user because tax revenues subsidize it, Internet access should become universally available. Commercial operators and automobile drivers pay some of the interstate highway fees through vehicle licenses, there may be minor fees associated with Internet access. The goal is to keep the fees low enough that Internet access is available to everyone. Brick and mortar locations pay taxes for their “downtown sites”, commercial Internet operators should pay for their presence on the cyber highway.

As to be expected, the chief lobbyists against subsidized access were the current service providers. They stand to loose a significant amount of revenue if the government in essence becomes a “cooperative” for all the Internet users and provides them Internet access.

My personal opinion is that the Internet should go the same way as the highway system.

Moderator’s Comment: Should political entities such as local governments be prevented from using tax dollars to provide
free or reduced cost Internet access for their residents?

Bill Bittner – Moderator

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