Broadband Internet is more than a convenience or an asset to business. As Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps testified last week, it is also fast becoming a necessity.

“America’s future town square will be paved with broadband bricks,” Copps said.

Sustaining democracy will more and more mean providing near-universal access to the tools of communication, which are currently available to some citizens but not to others.

This imperative is driving Congress to consider a major overhaul of rural broadband policy, looking for ways the government can step in and do what the telecommunications industry has not been able to.

If this discussion needed an example, one was provided Thursday by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which reluctantly approved FairPoint Communication’s bankruptcy plan in a 2-1 vote, giving the troubled company permission to back off its promises to bring high-speed Internet service to currently unserved communities.

The deciding vote came from PUC Commissioner Sharon Reishus, who said that she was concerned that if Maine did not agree to the plan, a bankruptcy court judge in New York might give the company even more leeway.

FairPoint is now pursuing similar approval from regulators in New Hampshire and Vermont.

FairPoint’s failure to deliver on its promises shows that rural states like Maine cannot just sit and wait for broadband to come to them.

Just as with the introduction of electricity and highways, there should be a strong federal commitment to reaching those areas that the commercial market have not been able to serve. (The federal government’s support of the Three Ring Binder project is a good example of how that should work.) The quick-changing nature of information technology calls for a variety of options, and nonregulated companies from both the public and nonprofit sectors should be allowed to compete if they will provide service where the traditional telecommunication companies will not.

As access to high-speed Internet can mean the difference between being a full participant in our democracy or not, no avenue of its expansion can be ignored.


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