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PREFACE

Those of us who use electronic mail (e-mail) systems extensively to assist in conducting our business or personal affairs understand the significant advantages derived from its key attributes:

  • Both parties to the transaction need not be on-line at the same time--e-mail is stored in an electronic "inbox" until accessed.

  • The information arrives in a "machine-readable" form such that it can be stored, retrieved, forwarded, cut-and-pasted into new messages, replied to, and reused in flexible ways.

  • It is fast, with most messages arriving (worldwide) within minutes of being sent.

  • Messages may contain combinations of text, pictures, diagrams, voice annotations, even video clips.

As more of our correspondents obtain e-mail addresses, more of our communication and commerce may be conducted through this efficient medium. To those on-line, e-mail provides a general--often substantial--increase in effectiveness, productivity, and access to relevant information.

What if e-mail were as ubiquitous as telephones, TVs, and VCRs, so that literally everyone were on-line, accessible by e-mail, and able to send messages to bulletin boards, news groups, friends, family, and colleagues? Is this technically feasible? If so, at what cost? What would be the personal and societal benefits resulting from "universal access to e-mail?" In particular, in addition to possible economic benefits, could universal access help in creating a more aware and participatory democracy by aiding the formation of interest groups ("virtual communities"), access to current information, and person-to-person contacts?

This is the final report of a two-year RAND study attempting to develop some answers to the above questions. It is designed as a sourcebook on key social, technical, economic, and international issues related to providing universal access to e-mail within the United States. It is our hope that this report will help stimulate public policy discussions regarding the feasibility, desirability, and implications of universal e-mail access. Decisionmakers involved with such public policy issues are the primary audience for this report, but it should also be of interest to academic and business professionals involved with telecommunications policy and its social implications.

The study was sponsored by The Markle Foundation and has benefited greatly from the personal interest and commitment to this study by its president, Dr. Lloyd Morrisett.

The study was carried out under the auspices of RAND's Center for Information Revolution Analyses (CIRA), directed by Dr. Bryan Gabbard.

For further information on this study, please contact, Dr. Bryan Gabbard (Bryan_Gabbard@rand.org), Dr. Robert Anderson (Robert_Anderson@rand.org) or Dr. Tora Bikson (Tora_Bikson@rand.org). This report is also accessible on the World Wide Web at http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR650/


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