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To compete, state must move past analog governing in a digital world

As noted in prior writings, I’ve watched the evolution of the digital divide in Mississippi from several unique vantage points.

Even the term “digital divide” has evolved in my lifetime. Earlier in the 20th century, that “divide” was defined by those who had access to telephones and those who didn’t. The obstacles to the technology included poverty, the lack of rural infrastructure, and other factors.

I’m old enough to remember when not everyone had telephones and when many of those who did were on “party” lines. My paternal grandparents had a “party” line – a local loop telephone line shared by several different “parties” or users.

The popularity of this arrangement was that it was the cheapest basic form of telephone service. The negatives? No privacy – others could listen in to your conversations – and lack of availability of the line at all times.

My grandmother – despite frequent chastisement by my father and his siblings about the practice – really enjoyed monitoring community news (and gossip) by eavesdropping on the party line.

A half-century later, the “digital divide” in rural America is more about those who have Internet access or not and the “bandwidth” that is available to them. Cellular telephones now are the only phone for even rural families.

Think about radio and television. Radio was once the province of national “clear channel” AM stations or small, relatively low power local AM stations like WHOC in Philadelphia where I got my first job covering news.

Now, FM radio is delivered by traditional terrestrial means but the real impact has been seen in “streaming” radio over the Internet or satellite radio networks like Sirius XM.

In the 1960s, we received over-the-air broadcast TV signals through a television antenna. Most homes were lucky to receive all three of the national networks and that usually was impacted intermittently by location and by weather conditions.

Now, TV comes to us from cable systems, satellite systems, smart TVs, video game consoles, laptop computers, smart phones and streaming – just to name a few. Netflix and similar companies now compete with – and often dominate – the old TV networks in the production of original content.

There’s a new digital world out there – one dominated by choices, access, and technology that seems to be expanding and improving by the month.

The bottom line is that government has to keep pace with changing technologies or the people they serve are left behind. That’s true at every level of government – federal, state, and local.

As technologies evolved from my childhood forward, government at every level usually found a way to keep pace with technological change. Telephone service carried with it built-in taxes and fees. The same was true with cable TV – every town in Mississippi that had cable TV service had a franchise agreement with a private provider who paid government for the privilege.

The latest such evolution at the intersection of technological development and how our governments interact with that development is being seen in California, Pennsylvania and other venues over the issue of taxing audio and video streaming services like Netflix or Hulu.

Proponents say lost sales tax revenues from old technology like video or DVD rentals should be recovered from taxing digital downloads from steaming – arguing that access to content was taxed at the point of rental of the VHS tape or DVD and that a change of delivery system doesn’t negate the prior levy of the tax. Opponents say that a leap and that voters should directly approve or vote down such an effort.

Governments at all levels are now face governing decisions on digital problems that didn’t exist when many of the taxing and spending plans for now-analog technologies were conceived.

Taxpayers deserve fresh, modern looks at sales and use taxes and current technology access fees and taxes based on today’s realities, not strategies devised back when my grandmother was listening in on the party line.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.