Obama’s Net-Neutrality Nostalgia for When Things Were Rotten
By Bill Frezza
“Who owns a telephone?”
It’s a question I frequently ask when I speak on college campuses about impediments to innovation. Every hand goes up, and I get quizzical looks as if I just asked who was wearing clothes.
“Who knows that when I was a kid, it was illegal to own your own telephone?”
A couple of graying professors raise their hands, recalling the days when you had to rent your phone from Ma Bell, the only legal provider.
“Hitchhiking back to college after a weekend break, why did I call my mom, ring the phone three times, and hang up to let her know I got back safely?” More quizzical looks. “Because in 1972 a three-minute long distance call cost the same as two pitchers of beer and three bags of Beer Nuts.”
I have their attention.
From the time my father was born in the 1920s to the time I went to college in the 1970s, the consumer experience of telephone service barely changed. You could have plugged a 1920s telephone into the 1970s telephone network and it would have worked just fine.
Sure, there were a few changes. Long distance operators were replaced by direct dialing. Push-buttons supplanted the old rotary dial. Other than that, the experience of making a telephone call barely changed for 50 years. Fifty years! New features? Hey, the Princess Phone has a lighted dial! As for consumers enjoying a Moore’s Law decline in prices? Fuggedaboudit.
I ask, “How many of you think the smartphone you are carrying is still going to be supported 50 years from now?” They laugh. “How would you like it you weren’t allowed to have new features until everyone on the planet gets a phone?” Eyes roll.
I tell them about a paper that was published in the late 1970s—when I had my first job as an engineer at Bell Laboratories—that explained why you could never send data down a telephone line at a rate faster than 9,600 bits per second. More quizzical looks from generation broadband. You’re putting us on, right?
This is where connecting the past to different possible futures gets interesting.
An entire generation has grown up with no knowledge of what it was like to live under the government sanctioned telecom monopoly known as the Bell System. Today, we have choices unimaginable during that 50-year era. So why did stasis last so long?
The answer is the number one killer of innovation—government-enforced “fairness.”
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