Affordable broadband for everyone

The new head of the FCC wants affordable broadband access for every man, woman, and child in America. Julius Genachowski told The Wall Street Journalin an interview that the Web has been perhaps "the most successful driver of economic growth" in the country.

Missing from plans for the new program is any realistic way to pay for it. Providing broadband access, even to those who cannot afford it, can be readily accomplished in most cities. The infrastructure is in place. Hooking up new subscribers within these geographic areas is not terribly expensive. The government only has to decide who will bear the modest costs -- the taxpayers or the telecom and cable companies who own the systems. The idea of private firms paying the freight would be novel, but it could be part of deals for them to keep exclusive franchises in big cities.

The much, much more costly and difficult proposition is getting broadband to rural areas, whether the denizens of those areas are rich or poor and regardless of whether or not they can pay for the service.

The American tradition is that some public services are available to all citizens, no matter what the cost to the federal government. Postal service is universal. Washington has pushed access to electricity to every corner of the country. Serving electricity and daily postal service to a remote corner of North Dakota is obviously more expensive per household than the same services are in New York City.

The government is up against the fact that it is running low on money as the ranks of taxpayers are thinned by unemployment and the costs of Federal programs, including the stimulus package and health care, are likely to balloon at the end of 2009 and into 2010 and the years beyond.

Universal access to broadband, while it may be a laudable goal, may simply be too expensive.

Douglas A. McIntyre is an editor at 24/7 Wall St.

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