As communication companies merge telephone, television and Internet services, some customers may be left on the wrong side of the digital divide, a U.S. researcher says.
Telephone companies are asking government regulators to free them of their traditional role as a public utility, citing the availability of new communication technologies such as cellular phones and fiber optic cable that make copper-based telephone land lines obsolete.
However, not all these alternatives are as affordable and as ubiquitous as copper landlines, a problem that could leave many rural residents underserved, Penn State telecommunication researcher Rob Frieden says.
"Moving away from copper lines is an example of abandoning obsolete technology and embracing technology that is faster, better, cheaper and more convenient," he said. "But the risk is that we may be creating a digital divide -- not necessarily a divide between the rich and poor, but between the information rich and information poor."
Rural customers could replace land line telephones with cellular phones, for example, but most cell phone companies charge a fee for each minute of use -- metering -- while most fees for land lines are unmetered and are paid through a fixed monthly charge, he said.
Frieden said there are doubts cellular service will prove to be as dependable as landlines.
"Cell phone companies have these colorful maps that show how well they cover areas," Frieden said. "But there are lots of places -- including places in rural Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York -- that do not have cell phone service, or offer limited services not suitable for broadband, Internet access."
"There are other forms of competition now," Frieden acknowledges, "but these alternatives are not fair or adequate everywhere."
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