What Do We Mean By "Universal Access?": Social Perspectives in a Canadian Context

Andrew Clement <clement@fis.utoronto.ca>
Principal Investigator, Information Policy Research Project
Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto
140 St. George St., Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1A1
tel: +1 416 978 3111
fax: +1 416 971 1399

Leslie Regan Shade <shade@polestar.facl.mcgill.ca>
Research Affiliate, Information Policy Research Project
Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto, and
McGill University Graduate Program in Communications
3465 Peel St., Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 1W7
tel: +1 514 398 4110

I. Introduction: From POTS to PANS

In the winter of 1996, a research project and workshop entitled "Defining and Maintaining Universal Access to Basic Network Services: Canadian Experiences in an International Context," was conducted in conjunction with the Information Policy Research Project of the Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto, and sponsored by Industry Canada. Its goal was to examine the premises and the constitutive elements of universal access to basic network services. Although the project focused on the current circumstances that define and impact the Canadian situation, it also examined international information infrastructure policy pronouncements and projects.

This paper outlines some of the key policy concerns around access to the information infrastructure. In particular, it examines issues of access from social as well as technical perspectives. To account for the complex interplay of social and technical aspects of an overall architecture of the information infrastructure, a multi-layered model of access has been delineated, which will be further discussed in Section III.

Universal access to basic network services implies an extension of the sensibility of POTS (plain old telephone service) in telephony, which is rooted in the notion that people living in outlying rural areas should get the same basic telephone service as those living in more densely populated urban or suburban locales. In other words, the same level of service will be offered at an equivalent cost, regardless of location. However, despite this reliance on geographic markers as a component of universal access, the implication has been that access to voice telephony is an essential ingredient for stitching together communities and the nation; and that access to basic services such as emergency 911 and operator assistance is a vital social utility that should be available to all citizens.

Moving from the POTS scenario to the more dynamic yet convoluted landscape of technological convergence, where the stakeholders exhibit conflicting technical perspectives, radically transforms and calls into question how PANS (public access network services) should be conceptualized. Public access has been defined as "not only establishing physical connections to the network, but also ensuring that those connections are easy to use, affordable, and provide access to a minimum set of information resources. In particular, network use should not be limited to the passive receipt of information. Instead, the environment should be open, distributed, and easily navigable. Even the most basic connection should enable users to act as information sources as well as destinations." (Keller, 1995, 34-5)

Public access has of course been championed by various public interest organizations, particularly in North America, who have been advocating that the information infrastructure maintain a vital public sphere. Effective citizenship depends on assuring that all citizens can create, and have access to, the content they need for active participation in their local communities and in their more global communities of interest.

The prevailing discourse (which straddles socioeconomic and public policy platforms) suggests that the design, development, and diffusion of the information infrastructure is a necessary requisite for economic sustainability (and in some cases, prosperity), job creation, lifelong learning, and democratic enhancement. Thus, it is ironic that most notions of access have typically relied on models that are solely technology driven, and not socially constructed.

The ideal that proposes universal access as an essential human right, and communication and public access as a public good, must be emphasized. This is in keeping with the well established tradition of universality in many areas of Canadian public policy (Buchwald, 1996). The most benefit to all accrues when more citizens gain access and more interconnections are made; this must be remembered as the debates continue over the encompassing factors of universality in an environment characterized by rapid technological convergence, commercialization, and deregulation.

Although standard definitions of equitable access to the information infrastructure posit a triumvirate comprising notions of equity, affordability, and ubiquity, it is important that the myriad factors encompassing access be considered holistically; these include physical, technical, economic, and social factors.

In addition, even though the sensibility of inclusivity is a key component, it is also imperative to remember that individuals and communities will define access in different ways. For instance, the K-12 community will probably not need the high bandwidth that network applications designed for the technical R&D community require; this community will probably, however, stress the need for a broad-based training and literacy schemes that can accommodate a variety of users (students, teachers, administrators, and parent and community volunteers).

Many public interest activists have expressed the belief that universal access to basic network services should be seen as an elemental component of citizens rights in an information society. Some, such as Menzies (1996, 162), argue that a social charter or constitution for the information infrastructure should be developed. Such a constitution would "define fairness and sustainability in terms of people and a diverse, inclusive social environment-not solely in technical terms such as access to the highway infrastructure."

Schement (1995), in writing about the American situation, reiterates this idea of universal service as a fundamental right: "Universal service is so important to the information society that it might better be understood as an information bill of rights. In a democratic society, we might ask what rights to information, and protections from information, belong to all Americans, regardless of their wealth, position, or language. If we direct our energies to answering that question, it should become evident that universal service is not a single policy to be written by a government agency. It is rather a guiding principle of the information society. And, as such, always debated, always tested, always pursued."

The recent Rand Study on Universal Access to E-Mail (Anderson et al., 1995) suggests that widespread citizen access to e-mail could stimulate economic activity, and provide new sources of revenues for entrepreneurs. But, most importantly, the study emphasized that the tenets of the NII would not be met unless universal access goals were met, and that the main concern "is achieving active, responsive citizen participation in our national dialog for all citizens-participation not only in national policies but in local affairs, job markets, educational systems, health and welfare systems, international discourse, and all other aspects of society."

Given the dynamism of technological developments, and the unresolved policy issues (including access, copyright, and censorship), the mechanics of access are hard to measure. One of the stated goals of universal access, of course, is to mitigate the disparities between the information "haves and have-nots." Of particular concern is how to evaluate access, not just to the hardware and software to support communication, but to the training, literacy, and knowledge that is an integral part of networked literacy.

Various stakeholders and different sectors conceptualize universal access issues differently. Generally, industry representatives define access as elimination of barriers, so that they can deliver services which will provide profits and market share. Government representatives see themselves as facilitators rather than as members of an official body which could and should set universal access goals. As well, government is concerned with individual programs (such as various community access grants) which will provide examples to the private sector and perhaps lead to further commoditization of government services. In contrast, the public interest sector has been attempting to provide a broader vision of society and democracy, and the promotion of universal access as a public good which will achieve positive externalities.

II. Access for all

Achieving consensus on the fundamental values surrounding universal access among the different stakeholders of national and global information infrastructures is one of the biggest policy challenges. Although it is generally agreed that access to networks and services should be equitable, affordable and ubiquitous, it is also recognized that access will depend on many different physical, technical, and economic factors. As well, communities will define access in different ways. For instance, as mentioned above, schoolchildren will probably not need the same high bandwidth as that required by researchers in medical imaging. The disabled community will need special features to aid in accessing information that the able-bodied community takes for granted. And, different individuals and groups will demand both access to, and creation of, their own idiosyncratic information content.

Access to the information infrastructure has been found to be inequitable for different communities. Inequities have been found based upon differential education, class, and income; upon gender; and among the disabled, visible minorities, and those residing in inner-city and rural communities. As well, given the predominance of the English-language across information technology platforms, including the Internet, many groups (and now, most vocally Francophones) have called for more linguistic diversity.

Rural and urban access

Conventionally, providing access has been defined as ensuring that rural communities can be wired up. For instance, Hudson (1994) advocates that the following be made available in rural and remote regions, to ensure equitable access:

Just as salient, however, is ensuring that urban environments, where a majority of the new, visible, and minority immigrants tend to congregate, are able to get connected. A 1995 report by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) concerned the complex problems faced by urban cores with the increasing digitization of our knowledge sector. Given that much of the technological growth is taking place in the outer suburbs, edge cities, and high-tech parks, where there are often tax incentives, and a congruence of higher amenities, central and inner-city urban areas are facing population losses and a lack of serviceable amenities. "The economies of many older, higher-cost metropolitan areas, as well as central cities and older inner suburbs of many metros, are likely to face increasing job loss and disinvestment, leading to underutilization of the built environment, potentially reduced central city agglomeration benefits for industry, increased poverty and ghettoization for residents, particularly minorities, and fiscal problems for local governments." (OTA, 1995).

Income and class-based access

In the U.S., the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration's study on access to the NII, Falling Through the Net (1995), starkly revealed that the information "have-nots" are disproportionately found in both rural areas and in central cities. A consistent pattern was that the less education and income one had, the lower the level of telephone, computer, and computer-household modem penetration. Central city areas had the lowest penetration rates for telephones and computers; with rural areas trailing urban and central city areas for modem penetration. [2]

A recent Statistics Canada study on information technology in Canadian households (Frank, 1995) revealed that the higher the household income, the more likely the technology was readily accessible. In 1994, 25 percent of Canadian households (2.6 million households) had a home computer, an increase of 10 percent from 1986. However, only one in three of these home computers (34 percent) was equipped with a modem. And, computer ownership varied by both the income and the age of the household: in 1994, households in the highest income group were five times more likely to have a home computer (46 percent) than were those in the lowest income group (9 percent).

Gendered access

Several demographic studies into gender representation on the Internet have been released in the last year alone. Some seem to have been conducted for purely commercial and marketing reasons. Statistics fluctuate, with women hovering between 30 to 40 percent of users; all of the studies indicate that women are not on an equal par with men, but that their access is slowly increasing. [3]

Disabled community access

The term "electronic curb cuts" refers to telecommunication equipment that is designed and accessible for people with physical or cognitive handicaps. As Goldberg (1995) points out, "It wasn't long after sidewalks began to be redesigned for wheelchair users that the benefits of curb cuts began to be realized by other people. Parents with strollers, skateboarders, bicycle riders, and delivery people helped prove the point that 'a sidewalk with a curb cut is simply a better sidewalk.'" This concept of universal design, then, needs to be applied at an early stage to the development and design of NII services and systems. [4]

III. Access sandwich

Most models of information infrastructure emphasize the purely technical aspects. For instance, a recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) on technological challenges to the "information highway" presented a model with five layers: management, applications, information, networks, and transport, all linked to security, interoperability, and reliability requirements. [5]

However, in order to more fully define what access to the information infrastructure encompasses, and to account for the intricate relationship between the social/technical architecture of the information infrastructure, a different model of access needs to be delineated.

A seven-layer model for analyzing and discussing access to network services has therefore been conceptualized. The main constitutive element is the service/content layer in the middle. However, all the other layers are also necessary in order to enjoy content/service access.

For each layer, a brief description of what elements it could contain is provided, as well as some basic questions that need to be addressed. Not indicated, but vital to achieving access, is the careful articulation of the relationships between layers. The upper layers emphasize social dimensions, while the lower layers emphasize more technical aspects. A useful feature of this model is that it illustrates the multifaceted nature of the concept of access. Popular formulations often highlight only a particular layer, not the whole structure (e.g., public lane-carriage layer; public on ramp-device layer). This further distinguishes the concept of access to network services from the conventional telecommunications services such as telephone and cable, which (for good reasons) focus almost entirely on just three layers: governance, service/content, and carriage. Discussions of universal access to basic network services must also include much more attention to the remaining layers: literacy/social facilitation, service providers, software tools, and devices.

The design challenge that faces us right now is how to specify a multi-layer architecture that takes all of these into account and affords access to everyone by virtue of their membership in society. The design process must be broadly participative and dynamic. It must be carried out in the face of strong pressures from rapid technological change, ideological opposition, ignorance of technical possibilities and social implications, scarce public resources, and societal turbulence.

A social/technical architecture for information infrastructure access


Access to the networked information infrastructure is multifaceted, and encompasses an overlapping mixture of technical, economic, and social infrastructures. Technical features include a switched and interoperable high-speed system, as well as features encouraging usability and design for multiple users with varying physical and cognitive abilities. Economic issues include physical placement of the system (is it available domestically, at the workplace, in rural environs, or at public libraries and local kiosks?). Is access subsidized through institutions such as libraries, schools, community nets, or community centers? Is a two-way flow of communication and content encouraged? Will communities be able to control and provide their own information? Does the networked information infrastructure encourage network literacy?

Currently, there are several matters of great urgency related to ensuring that access to the information infrastructure is available to all Canadians, and that the transition from a POTS to a PANS regime can be implemented smoothly. For instance, the public must have facilitated access to the existing (non-digital) public information services while the transition to the electronic medium is underway; and education and information programs related to the information infrastructure must be provided for the public at large.

The top policy priority is the need for a national access strategy. A key part of such a strategy would be the development of new institutional arrangements which would pursue a balanced approach to ensuring that the wide range of potential social, cultural, and economic benefits of the information infrastructure will be shared equitably by all Canadians.

A major part of the strategy will be the development of new revenue sources/streams for supporting public network enterprises. How to do this while national and global information infrastructures are being promoted and legislated in a market-driven, deregulated, and competitive environment, where private industry can have unbridled (albeit interoperable) power, is a huge challenge.

As well, the process of developing these policies needs to be opened up to broader citizen participation. If Canada is to continue pursuing its goal of being an inclusive and vibrant society, this reshaping process must be similarly inclusive and dynamic. This involves consultation at all levels--the local, the provincial/territorial, and national--and engages a diverse spectrum of citizens and their organizations. [6]

We are just beginning what is certainly going to be a long process of social and technological innovation as Canadians apprehend the risks and opportunities posed by the rapid advances of information technologies. There is a great deal more that we need to know about this complex and fast-paced phenomena. We are presently not well equipped with basic data about the social transformations taking place, nor have we sufficiently explored alternative paths of development.

Not to embark on these public initiatives as a matter of urgent priority runs the risk that the information infrastructure will develop in ways that widen existing social divisions, causing social insecurity and disruption.


[1] Hodge and Jesperson (1994) emphasize that rurally based community networks must be developed that empower their users, promote local issues and access, and solve local problems. They have promoted the idea of RANs (rural area networks), originally described in an OTA report, Rural America at the Crossroads (1991). RANs, a variant of LANs, are configured on a geographic basis to serve community users. As they are "designed on the basis of a ring, or campus type architecture, a RAN would link up as many users within a community as possible." The National Public Telecomputing Network RINs (rural information networks) are a form of RANs, costing approximately US$10,000 to set up. NPTN insists that RINs be set up in conjunction with local institutions (schools, libraries, community centers, colleges), have a community-based governing board, and operate for a minimum of two years. Through a grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), NPTN is helping rural communities get online by giving communities a "shrink-wrapped" freenet community computer system, consisting of a computer, modems, software, NPTN cybercasting services, money for telephone line installation, and UUCP connections to the Internet (see http://www.nptn.org/rin).

[2] Not surprisingly, access to the information infrastructure by Latinos in the United States has been found to be similarly low, even though they are the second-largest cultural group and the youngest, with a median age of 26.7 years, compared with 33.6 years for non-Latinos. Currently, 29.3 percent of Latinos live under the poverty level, and the median income for a Hispanic family is about US$24,000, with approximately 9.6 percent of Latino households owning a personal computer. Although California (where many Latinos live) has been subsidizing telephone service to approximately 2.5 million households through the Universal Lifeline Telephone Service, it is not yet known how this service will be expanded to subsidize advanced information infrastructure services for the poor.

The Tomas Rivera Center (1994) recommends the following strategies to ensure equitable access for Latinos: prevention of "electronic redlining," in which advanced information technology projects bypass poor and minority neighborhoods; installation of public electronic kiosks in libraries, schools, and other public spaces as a cost-effective means of ensuring equal access to services; provision of low-income subsidies; increase of minority business access to capital; training and education of the "information underclass;" provision of Spanish-language channels; and increasing hiring of Latinos in the computer, telecommunications, and entertainment industries.

[3] Matrix Information and Directory Services and Texas Internet Consulting revealed that in academia, gender parity is more pronounced than in other sites. The authors concluded that in educational organizations, the ratio of males to females using the Internet was 59 percent to 41 percent, compared with 64 percent and 30 percent for noneducational organizations and 64 percent to 36 percent for the Internet. (Quarterman and Carl-Mitchell, 1995).

GVU Center's 3rd WWW User Survey indicated that, overall, 15.5 percent of the users were female, 82 percent male, and 2.5 percent "Rather not say!" Compared with their last survey, this represents a 6 percent increase in women and an 8 percent decrease for men (GVU, 1995).

The CommerceNet/Nielsen Internet Demographics Study revealed that males represent 66 percent of Internet users and account for 77 percent of Internet usage and that WWW users are upscale (25 percent have an income over US$80,000), professional (50 percent are professional or managerial), and educated (64 percent have at least college degrees). Males comprise 59 percent of the users of online services and are responsible for 63 percent of the total usage. There is less of a gender skew in online services than there currently is with the Internet (http://www.commerce.net/information/surveys/execsum/exec_sum.html).

Patrick, Black, and Whalen's (1995) online demographic survey of users on the National Capital FreeNet (NCF) in Ottawa revealed that 81.8 percent of respondents were male, the average age was 34.3, most users had attained an undergraduate degree, and 41.5 percent were salaried employees, while 27.5 percent were students.

The Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press did a study on online users in America, and found that 9 percent of all American men are online users, compared with 4 percent of women, and that e-mail is the only online activity in which women engage as frequently as men (Times Mirror, 1994).

[4] In the IITF report People with Disabilities and NII: Breaking Down Barriers, Building Choice (1994), the public interest imperatives for providing electronic curb cuts are many:

Minimally, digital information should be provided in a format that can be accessed using standard hardware including Braille and speech devices. Ways to achieve this are through device-independent data storage and multiple formatting.

[5] "The transport layer consists of optical fibers, coaxial cable, copper wire, switches, routers, satellites, and transmitters; the networks layer consists of thousands of logical networks superimposed on the transport layer; the information layer includes databases and electronic libraries containing text, images, and video; the applications layer contains software and consumer electronics needed to access the superhighway's information and services; and the management layer consists of operations and administrative centers, emergency response teams, and security services." (Information Superhighway, 1995)

[6] While the Canadian Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC) Chair David Johnston, former principal and vice-chancellor at McGill University, applauded the IHAC committee members for reflecting a "wide range of knowledge and expertise, as well as a broad perspective on linguistic, cultural and regional issues," (Johnston, 1994, 5) the composition of IHAC was criticized for being dominated by representatives of the primary stakeholders in the broadcasting, cable, and telecom industries. Social issues, including equity, democratic participation, social justice, and particularly employment, were felt to be dismissed by IHAC. Public interest critics were in agreement that a more participatory and democratic process needed to be adopted (see the Alliance for a Connected Canada for more details: http://www.lglobal.com/connect).


Anderson, Robert H., Tora K. Bikson, Sally Ann Law, and Bridger M. Mitchell. (1995). Universal Access to E-Mail: Feasibility and Societal Implications. Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation. http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR650/.

Buchwald, Cheryl. (1996). Recalling the Past: Canada's Experiences with Universality in Relation to Information Infrastructure Access, Information Policy Research Project (IPRP), Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto, Working Paper No. 3, http://www.fis.utoronto.ca/research/iprp.

Frank, Jeffrey. (1995). Preparing for the Information Highway: Information Technology in Canadian Homes. Canadian Social Trends. http://www.statcan.ca/Documents/English/SocTrends/infotech.htm.

Goldberg, Larry. (1996). Electronic Curbcuts: Equitable Access to the Future. Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities and the Getty Art History Information Program, Cyberspace/PublicSpace: The Role of Arts and Culture in Defining a Virtual Public Sphere. http://www.ahip.getty.edu/cyberpub/goldberg.html.

GVU (Georgia Tech) Third World Wide Web Survey (1995). http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu/user_surveys.

Hodge, Gerald, and John Jespersen. (1994). Getting Rural Canada to Log On: Community Computer Networks and CED. Paper presented to the International Conference Rural Communities Preparing for the 21st Century, 15-17 June 1994, St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada.

Hudson, Heather E. (1994). Universal Service: The Rural Challenge--Changing Requirements and Policy Options. Benton Foundation Communications Policy Working Paper No. 2. Washington, D.C.: Benton Foundation. http://cdinet.com/Benton/Catalog/Working2/working2.html.

Information Superhighway: An Overview of Technology Challenges (Chapter Report, 23 January 1995, GAO/AIMD-95-23). http://nii.nist.gov/gao.txt.

Johnston, David. (September 1994). Toward 2000: Public Policy Issues on the Information Highway. Policy Options/Options Politiques, v.15, n.7: 3-6.

Keller, James. (1995). Public Access Issues: An Introduction, pp. 34-45 in Public Access to the Internet. Edited by Brian Kahin and James Keller. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Larson, Anne, and Anthony Wilhelm. (September 1994). Latinos and the Information SuperHighway. Tomas Rivera Center. http://www.cgs.edu/inst/trc_super1.html.

Menzies, Heather. (1996). Whose Brave New World? The Information Highway and the New Economy. Toronto: Between the Lines.

Office of Technology Assessment. (September 1995). The Technological Reshaping of Metropolitan America. U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, OTA-ETI-643. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. ftp://otabbs.ota.gov/pub/metro.america.

Patrick, Andrew S., Alex Black, Thomas E. Whalen. (1995). Rich, young, male, dissatisfied computer geeks? Demographics and satisfaction from the National Capital FreeNet. In D. Godfrey and M. Levy (Eds.), Proceedings of Telecommunities 95: The International Community Networking Conference (pp. 83-107). Victoria, British Columbia, Canada: Telecommunities Canada. http://www.swifty.com/SW/cone/tc95/ch7.htm.

People with Disabilities and NII: Breaking Down Barriers, Building Choice. Excerpted from The Information Infrastructure: Reaching Society's Goals, report of the Information Infrastructure Task Force Committee on Applications and Technology, published by U.S. Department of Commerce, Technology Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, 1994. http://iitfcat.nist.gov:94/doc2/disabled.html.

Quarterman, John S., and Smoot Carl-Mitchell. (May 1995). Is the Internet All Male? Matrix News 5. gopher://akasha.tic.com/00/matrix/news/v5/gender.505.

Schement, Jorge Reina. (1995). Beyond Universal Service: Characteristics of Americans Without Telephones, 1980-1993.

Telecommunications Policy 19(6), 477-485. Also Benton Foundation Communication Policy Working Paper No. 1. http://cdinet.com/cgibin/lite/Benton/Catalog/Working1/working1.html.

Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. (1994). Technology in the American Household. Los Angeles: Times Mirror.

U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration. (July 1995). Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the "HaveNots" in Rural and Urban America. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fallingthru.html.

Further information on the Universal Access Project is available at http://www.fis.utoronto.ca/research/iprp/ua.


We are grateful to Industry Canada and the Faculty of Information Studies for financial support. (See Clement and Shade, Defining and Maintaining Universal Access to Basic Network Services: Canadian Experiences in an International Context, Report to Industry Canada, 31 March 1996). The authors would also like to thank the participants of the Universal Access workshop for the many stimulating and insightful ideas that emerged from the two and one half days of conversations and debates: Duncan Bailey, Cheryl Buchwald, Richard Cavanagh, Richard Civille, Arthur Cordell, Dan Dorner, William Drake, Garth Graham, Liz Hoffman, Liss Jeffrey, James McConnaughey, Steve McDowell, Marita Moll, Prabir Neogi, Kirsti Nilsen, Kerry Pither, W. Curtiss Priest, Julia Shiu, Sid Shniad, Jaine Stockler, Mark Surman, Marie Vallee, Colin Williams, and Michael Williamson. Thanks also to Brenda McPhail for help in preparing this paper.