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Politicians just cannot stay away from the Internet. Innovation in information technology-related products has created a stampede of presidential hopefuls toward the surprise issue of the year: the Internet.
The latest candidate to announce a "new" idea for the Internet is Vice President Gore. While visiting the San Francisco Bay area Friday and Saturday, Gore announced a new component of his "mission as president." Gore would have the federal government bring access to the World Wide Web to every home in the Bay area. Mayor Jerry Brown appeared at the same event and suggested that America could follow the example of the French Minitel.
During a Sunday afternoon visit in Seattle, he declared that under his administration there would be a new standard for universal telecommunications service. Everyone, it seems, in America's two uber-wired urban areas requires federal help to get online.
Citizen activists are turning up in droves to tell candidates and elected officials alike to keep their hands off of the Internet. Someone should mention to the Vice President that this also means no new federal handouts: especially those modeled on a failed French experiment.
During the 1980s France installed "Minitels" - dumb computers that utilize the telephone network - in every home. The Vice President claims this is a good model for America to follow.
Today, French consumers are still paying the price. Not only did they have to pay for the computers in the first place, but France has been slow getting online because the Minitels are not Internet capable. In fact, the Minitels have the power of a 1950s American computer. They are dumb and slow in an age when the watchwords of computing are smart and fast.
There are two assumptions made by a "Minitel" strategy. First, that the traditional telephone network is the telecommunications network best suited to carry Internet (or any other) traffic. This is not always the case, and in nearly every region of the country, upgrades are necessary to the basic telephone network in order to carry high-speed Internet traffic.
The second assumption Gore makes is that the federal government would have the ability pick the "right" technology. Everyday experience teaches us that a distant government bureaucracy cannot have the right information to make such important decisions for consumers.
The right technology will be different for different individuals, different households, different communities, states, and even regions. Telecommunications services are not one-size-fits-all. Universal service regulations lock consumers in to a lowest-common-denominator technology. And, as in the case of Minitel, it prevents consumers from realizing the benefits of the next innovative, path-breaking technology to come along.
Rather than a new subsidy program financed with taxpayer dollars, it's time for elected officials to repeal outdated government taxes, rules, and regulations that were created to serve an analog, pre-Internet America. Getting government out of the high-tech industry will do more to close the "digital divide" than a new entitlement program.