THE BLOG
03/11/2013 02:46 pm ET Updated May 11, 2013

A Post Office for the 21st Century: Universal High-Speed Broadband

While headlines focus on the fate of Saturday mail delivery, the better question is: Why not harness the Postal Service of the 21st century to catalyze America's economic development, much as the Postal Service did after it was originally created in the 18th century?

Debates may rage over the preferred extent of the federal government's involvement throughout many aspects of American life. But the Postal Service's very existence is constitutionally created. Under Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, Congress is authorized "to establish post offices and post roads".

When George Washington's signed the Postal Act of 1792, the role of a post office went far beyond mere letter delivery. A national postal service was critical to the economic and political development of a new and growing nation -- it transmitted information widely, at low cost, and universally. Moreover, from early on, Congress was active in extending this power, embarking on the creation of a vast network of post roads that expanded as the country grew, extending fast access to information to new frontiers.

Fulfilling the public mission of connecting all parts of America to the flow of information has at times been a money-losing proposition. One historian notes that in 1860 the postal service spent $600,000 to carry mail and newspapers to a rapidly expanding Gold Rush California, but collected only $119,000. But wisely, the federal government understood that this was a worthy investment in the growth and competitiveness of the country.

When rural free delivery first carried mail to the front doors of previously unserved farmers in 1896, a local newspaper noted that when mail service arrives, "the schools improve and the civic spirit of the community feels a new pulsation; the standard of intelligence is raised, enlightened interest in public affairs is quickened, and better citizenship follows". RFD proved so popular that $3,500,000 was appropriated by Congress in 1901 to expand it -- again, the investment was deemed worth the gain.

The internet is our modern equivalent of a post road. Vastly more information is exchanged in America and around the world today electronically than by paper.

And just as "the isolation and monotony which have been the bane of agricultural life" was overcome a century ago by a Postal Service innovation, so today we need a new innovation to overcome digital isolation and reach the many parts of America, rural and urban, where citizens lack access to a reliable, high speed, affordable connection to the internet.

Rather than bemoaning the competition to the Postal Service's traditional mission from electronic mail, we should instead entrust it with a new mission to deliver universal broadband through a modern network providing every citizen basic access to electronic information.

The need is clear. America starts out ranking well behind the UK, Canada, much of Europe and world leader South Korea in the percentage of households with access to broadband connections. In addition, broadband in America is available only through a limited number of sources in most areas, making it relatively expensive compared to broadband in the more competitive and less costly markets throughout much of Europe. To remedy this, some observers advocate treating broadband internet access as a public utility, like telephone or electricity was a century ago.

The utility approach has some appeal. But the existing national platform and resources of the Postal Service may well provide a better path.

Indeed, the Postal Service has been investigating aligning efforts with the National Broadband Infrastructure Initiative. The Office of Inspector General of the Post Office concluded that with "over 33,000 facilities nationwide, including rural areas that are currently underserved by broadband providers, the Postal Service could influence the broadband ecosystem by using its expansive footprint of properties to encourage network upgrades and competitive entry, especially in unserved or underserved areas."

While Postal Service management took issue on the margins with some of these recommendations, the primary barrier to this plan is that it would require an investment of funds. These funds are simply not being made available at present. Congress has not appropriated anything for postal service, insisting that it be self-sustaining, and the USPS won't have funds to invest so long as it is Congressionally mandated to put $5 billion annually into reserving against pensions for 75 years, an overly conservative approach that most analysts say is not needed.

A low cost, no frills broadband package is something other countries, like the UK, already offer through their postal services. Last fall, even Albania chose a satellite company to connect the Albanian Postal Service and 850 post offices and public locations to high speed internet. Can't America keep up with Albania?

The "post" in post office must expand to include electronic information. The Constitution no more confines the meaning of "post" to its 1789 meaning of letters written with quill pens on parchment any more than it confines the meaning of the "arms" protected by the Second Amendment to flintlock muskets firing lead balls.

Millions of us would be delighted to have an "@usps.net" email address to accompany our ad-free USPS broadband package. That way, we could receive e-communications and conduct e-commerce with the same reliability with which we've received mail our entire lives.

David Abromowitz is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, www.americanprogress.org.