Big Telecom worldwide is being deregulated to the point where real competition could cease to exist. With fewer service provider options, prices might go up, but the quality of service could suffer without incentive to improve.
We need policy makers to take a citizen-centered approach to Internet governance, ensuring that citizens have affordable and independent telecom choices available to them. Sign the Declaration for Internet Freedom and, if you're in the United States, speak out against AT&T's attack against Net Neutrality.
Article by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchieral
It was only a couple of days after Barack Obama was elected president when Susan Crawford’s phone rang in the middle of the night. “We want you to come work with us,” said a member of the transition team. Susan couldn’t believe it.
Crawford, 49, a calm, charming, blue-eyed woman with short and curly hazel hair, recalls that moment vividly. “I started jumping up and down,” she says. She was excited by the chance to help the candidate she voted for, the man she watched through tears while he spoke at Grant Park in Chicago. “I had this strain of earnestness in me ‘Oh! I get to help! I get to help!’”
For this Yale-educated professor of law, leading the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) transition team was the opportunity of a lifetime. She was primed for the job, having served five years on the board of the Internet governing body, known as ICANN. For her, this was a chance to put technology policy at the forefront.
She spent one year at the White House, initially leading the FCC during the transition and then serving under Larry Summers at the National Economic Council with a newly-coined title: President’s Special Assistant for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy. Wired even called her “the most powerful geek close to the president.”
“I had tremendous power…potentially,” she says. Crawford explains that her real influence depended on the ability of her boss, Summers, to “throw his weight around.” But Summers and the rest of the administration were dealing with the economic crisis and the health care debate. Tech policy was not exactly a priority.
For Crawford, this was a problem for one very big reason. At the time, she’d become increasingly concerned about the gradual monopolization of Internet access by a few large providers. The central issue, as she explains in her upcoming book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, is that the telecommunications market has been deregulated to the point where real competition no longer exists. With fewer service provider options, prices might go up, but the quality of service doesn’t necessarily do the same. That’s because there is no incentive for Internet providers to innovate and improve.
Disillusioned, Crawford left D.C. at the end of 2009 to go back to teaching, but not before realizing that a telecommunications crisis was looming.
How did we end up in this situation? In the ’90s, the only option for an Internet connection was via phone companies, although “common carriage” rules ensured that older companies owning networks –- like phone copper lines –- would open them up to new competition. Then, with the introduction of cable, the U.S. government determined that deregulating the market (allowing for free competition) would ensure good service and low prices. It was a clear case of free market thinking: the idea that more lax regulation would allow private companies to fight each other. Their commercial war would bring down prices and increase the number of consumer options.
When President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act on Feb. 8, 1996, The New York Times reported that the bill “knocks down regulatory barriers and opens up local telephone, long-distance service and cable television to new competition.” And for a while, it did. By the year 2000, thanks to common carriage rules, according to the U.S. Census, there were more than 9,000 ISPs in America. Read more »
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