October 11, 2015

Social Obligations Attached To Communication Media

Having just finished attending the Conference on Research in Regulated Industries sponsored by Rutgers University and led by Dr. Michael Crew, I have been immersed in many presentations relating to many subjects, but one, in particular, caught my attention:

  • What universal or public services do we expect of major communication media?

With respect to mail, postal services around the world all have a variety of what are called “universal service obligations.” They are expected to maintain a network that allows every citizen in their country to transact business, to deposit mail into collection boxes or at a conveniently-located post office, and to receive mail at a designated home or business address 5-6 days a week all year. Additionally, their governments expect them to subsidize charitable and educational organizations, to charge affordable and uniform prices for mail originating from individual citizens and to be large employers and anchors for rural communities. In the U.S., the Postal Service also absorbs an enforcement responsibility for obscene, offensive, and fraudulent material that gets sent through the mail. In recent years, Congress has deferred its payments to the Postal Service for the mandates imposed on the Postal Service to subsidize certain categories of mail and certain types of users, such as non-profits.

All this costs a great deal of money and puts mail at a competitive disadvantage as a communications, delivery, and advertising medium. By way of comparison, Internet service providers can be selective in whom they serve, do not have social obligations, get to charge whatever they want, and can maintain facilities and labor forces appropriate to their mission. Moreover, Congress has provided subsidies to expand Internet coverage through its Rural Utilities Service broadband program.

Prior to the 1984 break-up of the AT&T telephone system, the telecommunications business had many social obligations, but these have been largely discontinued. For example, for national defense and national emergency reasons, AT&T was expected to maintain a robust infrastructure that was expected to function in a variety of national emergency environments and to maintain uptimes well in excess of 99%. Last year, as a result of flooding in our town, telephone service was down for three days, an inconceivable situation before 1984.

So how does this affect us? Think about a potential pandemic situation. The U.S. Postal Service has successfully tested its ability to get vaccines delivered in communities within a matter of hours, with even half of its workforce disabled. On the other hand, a report of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued in December, 2007, indicated that the Internet and the nation’s telecommunications network would be utterly unable to function if one-third of our population stayed home.

Ironically, the reason the Internet would fail in a national emergency is the inability to control recreational use of the Internet by homebound schoolchildren playing or downloading videos, a commercial and social networking use that is celebrated as one of the benefits of this wonderful communication medium.

The Internet, created by the U.S. Defense Department to be available for national emergencies, has not been stress-tested for a wide range of emergencies and probably would not be available or successful, largely because of the huge bandwidth consumption from multi-media video and game applications, and social networking sites. Internet broadband capability would not likely be able to withstand the stress placed on it if a significant part of the population switched to using the Internet, rather than a face-to-face communications process.

If Internet service providers were required to meet universal service obligations like postal services, the pricing on Internet services would be a great deal higher, and there probably would be non-uniform pricing based on usage. This type of pricing existed with some of the providers in the 1990’s, when Internet usage was low, but everyone rebelled against constraints on usage, so the Internet went to a flat pricing model in the U.S., with some countries maintaining some degree of gradation based on bandwidth required.

However, I am very confident that, because electronic communications bears no meaningful public service obligations and no share of costs required for national emergency capability, we are creating a highly un-level playing field between physical and electronic communications.

As we start to think about the implications of a gradual evolution from physical and face-to-face communications to remote, Internet-based communications, we need to address broader societal needs, particularly those arising in a national emergency, that will be less capably addressed as a result, and, more importantly, address the unlevel playing field we have created between mail and other forms of communications. Congress either should subsidize social obligations imposed on the Postal Service, or it should demand that Internet service providers and Internet users pay a fee for comparable social obligations, such as the requirement that the Internet be usable in the event of a national emergency, or that the Internet be available for non-profits at reduced rates. We should have a consistent policy across communication media for social obligations in terms of who pays for them.