When I was in school, I lived for a time on a small farm just outside of Gainesville. It didn’t have a phone. And to get a line out there would have cost an arm and a leg. Cellphones were non-existent then, too. So, when I left the campus for home, I was basically 10 miles off of the grid, incommunicado until I trucked back into town.
Much has changed since then in the early 80’s. If I lived there now, the grid would be omnipresent. Affordable wired, wireless and satellite communications options now abound.
No doubt, legal, policy and technological changes over these years helped bring this about. But something else did, too. Getting connected – epitomized by the Internet – has been built on an ecosystem that has constantly mutated and churned, looking to create or find new ideas and technology to meet the near ceaseless demand by consumers for communications devices, applications, services and content.
Over the past decade, companies such as Google, Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Apple, among others, have led the charge, creating innovative technology on their own; buying intellectual property, technology or talent when they didn’t have it in-house; or acquiring companies that had important pieces of the puzzle, which they lacked, to satisfy consumer demand.
Inarguably, this activity has benefited Americans. Look in any newspaper, mall, or your mailbox to get an idea of the overwhelming choice of communications devices, Internet connectivity, computer applications, services and content now available.
An important though under-recognized aspect of this explosion is that it could not have happened without the underlying markets – the ecosystem – thriving and being healthy.
A case in point – the iPhone. Before that revolutionary “gadget” could find a market, Internet lines and wireless capacity, computer applications and services, and content – among a myriad of other components at the core and edge of the network – all had to exist, and work well with the other, before the iPhone could find a home.
Though it looks obvious now, its success was not guaranteed. Regardless, the odds that it could have failed were greatly minimized by the robustness of the Internet ecosystem.
Once on the market, its value became apparent. So much so, that its success spawned other innovation. It created smartphone competition. It boosted related software and content. It pushed networks to upgrade their facilities and compete even more vigorously against each other. And, it laid the groundwork for the iPad. Etc., etc., etc.
An amazing thing about all this growth is that – since 2005 – it happened without the force of government mandate. It was spontaneous. Technological advances. Our entrepreneurial flare. American mobility. Our talkative nature. These and other factors all came together to benefit consumers and American society.
The FCC recently concluded that more than nine-in-ten Americans have access to fast and affordable Internet services. These numbers continue to improve. The iPhone has driven a lot of this growth.
Sadly, this does not satisfy a group of powerful special interests in Washington who parade around as self-appointed “consumer advocates.” They pretend to have the “public interest” at heart, but are in fact doing the bidding of competitors who either want to gain advantage from the government, or have failed in the marketplace and seek the government’s help to rectify their incompetence.
Public interest groups – like Public Knowledge, New America Foundation, Media Access Project and Free Press – believe that though the Internet was built with private risk and money, and flourished because regulations were largely absent, the Internet is way too important to be “controlled” by private network providers (the companies that bring the Internet into your house).
In their view, bureaucrats, politicians and their friends coming from elite, North Eastern schools, are somehow better suited to determine how markets serve Floridian consumers – even better than the network providers who themselves have the most at stake, and struggle daily to figure this out, can.
They kvetch to policymakers when companies need approval to partner; when regulations are being debated to hamstring providers; when new services get offered to satisfy consumer demand. They kvetch because they can.
Oh, and one other thing. They kvetch because it’s a successful business model, too.
Take Public Knowledge, for instance. From 2005 through 2009, it took in $5,182,449 in gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees to work in this milieu. Radical group, Free Press, has made an even bigger killing, raking in $19,300,508 from 2006 through 2010.
Quite a profit for these non-profits, eh?
They have nothing to lose. You see, they didn’t drop one line in Florida. They didn’t come out to your house in Tampa, Tallahassee, Jacksonville or Miami to make a single service call. They didn’t connect one Web transaction to e-Bay, or a phone call to the Alachua County police. They didn’t do any of that because they can’t.
But, you know what they did do?
At every chance – when it looked like government rules could constrain network providers so that the public interest groups’ supporters (mainly content providers) wouldn’t have to pay as much to reach Internet users – they kvetched loudly and prolifically for their corporate sponsors.
Shoot-yourself-in-the-foot kvetching has consequences, of course.
Instead of making the marketplace any better, however, their work has resulted in new regulations and burdens, lawsuits, misguided allocation of limited resources, higher costs for consumers, and, perhaps most importantly, less innovation and tolerance for risk from Internet leaders.
Though the public interest groups have focused on network providers (mainly the local telephone and cable companies), the Internet ecosystem of which they’re a part cannot remain healthy if those networks providers are singled out and subject to continual and withering attacks by advantageous, foreign bodies.
In this manufactured “sick” environment, why would a network provider roll out new lines, cell towers and other core infrastructure when that risk can either be hamstringed or outright confiscated by “helpful” government policies?
The answer is – they won’t.
Yet the health of network providers needs to flourish so that all Americans have access to the high-speed Internet. The whole is only as strong as its weakest parts.
At a time when Floridians need new communications tools to compete, prosper and produce jobs, the mercenary public interest groups have done immeasurable damage, undermining core incentives within the Internet ecosystem, which foster innovative new services for Florida’s communities and its residents.
Talk is cheap. Until it has a cost, that is. Thanks, Public Knowledge, New America Foundation, Media Access Project and Free Press for being the Typhoid Mary’s of the digital age.