If understanding is the process of finding the suitable names for things, then ignorance and misunderstanding are the consequences of burdening things with names that don’t fit.
For most of life’s tasks, the ordinary names fit well enough to get by. A piece of cheese is a piece of cheese, a pipe is a pipe and a hat is a hat. Only philologists and surrealistic artists challenge us on this level. But for emerging technologies where use has outpaced common understanding, the problem of finding suitable names remains challenging. For many, or perhaps most, of us, how things work is just magic.
Nowhere in public policy is this naming problem more acute than in the arena of digital communication – broadband, gigabits, download speed, upload speed, cables, WiFi, fiber optic, copper, DSL 3-Ring Binder, dark fiber, satellite connections, the list goes on and on. Makes me long for the simple days of, “I want my MTV.”
Added to this technological confusion is the public policy debate about who should do what both to improve access to the Internet and to help users get more benefit from it. On a recent MPBN call-in show on broadband in Maine, most of the calls focused on how slow and intermittent Internet services were in areas the callers insisted weren’t “in the hinterlands.” Obviously the very idea of “hinterland” is itself a name whose suitability to a particular place will generate differing opinions. For a caller who lives “a few miles” outside Ellsworth, the “hinterland” is unquestionably someplace far more remote. For the Internet service provider who has to justify the cost of installing poles and wires (or cable, or fiber or cell towers or whatever other technology may reach that potential customer) those “few miles” may just as well be “the end of the earth.”
So the “What is the cost of access?” question becomes a “Who should pay question?” Is Internet access a right or a public utility? Should government intervene to insure “universal access?” And if yes, should the payment come from the general taxpayer or from an added charge for ratepayers in the more densely populated (and therefore lower cost) urban areas?
And then there’s the “bang for the buck” question. If government is to pay to help expand the benefits of Internet access, how does the benefit of providing “basic” access to the last person at the end of the last road compare to the benefit of spending the same amount of money to provide higher quality (meaning faster and more reliable) access to a larger number of users. What if the job-creating economic benefits of the second option (higher quality access in selected areas) are greater than those of the first option (basic access to all)? Should net economic benefit outweigh universal access?
And finally, beneath all this is the even more fundamental question of basic knowledge. How can people come to realize the benefits of access to the Internet? Today approximately 90 percent of Maine households live in areas that have at least basic levels of Internet service – the wires go by. But something less than 75 percent of households have actually signed up – don’t see the need and/or the price is too high, they say. For businesses, the “take rate” is somewhat higher – about 86 percent – but still far from universal.
Before spending a lot of money to provide “universal service,” therefore, it seems that the state has its own selling job to do. What are the benefits of Internet connection? Why should Maine households and businesses sign up for service? The digital “hat” floating in the sky may be obvious to many of us, but we’ve got to find a more suitable name for it before we can all realize its potential benefits.
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be reached at: