This piece was originally published in the Baltimore Sun on November 20, 2014.
On March 26, 1979, AT&T security personnel in the company of Maryland State troopers raided A.A. Answering Telephone Service in Bel Air. It was my business and my home. Police confiscated electronic equipment I had been using to provide flat rate long distance service to 150 local customers since 1976.
Immediately after the raid, AT&T which was operating in my area as the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, sent notices to each of my customers advising them that their answering service would be disconnected in 30 days. AT&T’s complaint against me was my little company was competing with the monopoly for their telephone business. Though I tried, I did not have the financial wherewithal to sustain a legal battle against the giant. I was not charged with a crime, but I was nonetheless put out of business and ultimately lost my home. My experience that day in 1979 became a precursor to the 1984 landmark decision that broke up the telephone monopoly and opened the U.S. telecommunications industry to competitive market forces.
And now AT&T is at it again along with its corporate colleagues Comcast and Verizon trying to monopolize traffic on the Internet with a toll booth scheme that will eliminate competition and stifle the kind of innovation that created the Internet in the first place. For me, it’s deja vu all over again.
The Federal Communications Commission is contemplating establishing new rules that would in effect put the brakes on monopolization of the net and redefine broadband as a utility. I say have at it. This is a good time to recognize that the competitive telecom industry is merely 30 years removed from the former Bell monopoly. It’s a particularly notable milestone for those of us who owe our livelihood to telecom competition. Perhaps it’s also a good time to remember what’s changed in three decades of competition and innovation.
Within 30 years, the personal portable phone morphed into 6.8 billion smart phones. In just the last 20 years, the World Wide Web exploded, changing the way we communicate through browsing, searching, emailing, texting, chatting, tweeting and more. How much of that would even exist today had the telephone company break-up not occurred?
In the 1970s, Bell Labs conceived cellular telephone network design, but the technology did not exist to make it happen. At least two companies set out to build it. AT&T’s monopolistic mindset was to improve on developing the car phone network, giving it non-operator assisted call completion and greater capacity. Then Marty Cooper of Motorola, inspired by Captain Kirk’s Star Trek communicator, envisioned a hand-held phone because he realized people didn’t want to go from being tied to their land lines to being tied to their car phones. In 1983, the Motorola DynaTac™ portable phone was released and the rest is history.
Thirty years ago, the U.S. telephone monopoly was divested into 30 companies with the aim of limiting the power of one and encouraging competition among many. Today, these 30 companies have coalesced into six dominant carriers who still control exclusive service territories. These are the carriers that want to develop so-called “fast lanes.”
On the other hand, net neutrality proponents want to govern Internet service under Title II of the 80-year old Communications Act of 1934 originally conceived to regulate voice services. Perhaps another option, rewriting the Communications Act to 2014 relevance, should be considered.
Remaining neutral by keeping the Internet open and unregulated has already proven to be the best way to encourage innovation and fair competition. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.