“Progress” Does Not Mean Shackling the Internet to the 19th Century

by Mike Wendy on November 9, 2012

The other day, AT&T announced that it was expanding its broadband wireless and wireline offerings to the tune of $14 billion.  The move, to be completed in 2015, would extend broadband to 99% of AT&T’s service territories, making broadband available to nearly 60 million more Americans.

With its announcement for its “Internet Everywhere” plan, the company simultaneously asked the FCC to begin examining regulatory reforms that will hasten the transition to new IP-based networks – reforms that both serve the public interest and foster needed private investment to upgrade our competitive Internet infrastructure for the needs of 21st Century consumers and institutions.

Pretty good news, right?

We have a private actor – AT&T – working to significantly modernize its communications network for U.S. consumers (and, in doing so, creating new jobs directly, indirectly and through productivity increases).  Further, the company has committed to making an orderly glide-path away from legacy copper technology (e.g., plain old telephone service), averring that it’s “very cognizant that no one should be left behind in this transition.” And finally, the company seems to be doing yeoman’s work in helping to reasonably address, hopefully with the FCC’s aid, the underlying regulatory disincentives and policies that keep much of America’s communications infrastructure locked to the past.

Seems like a win, win, win to me.

Not so for professional naysayer, Susan Crawford.  On AT&T’s upgrade plans, she recently barked:

“Today the general purpose network is a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH). That’s what’s going on in Europe and Asia, but we seem to be abandoning that concept. Instead, we’re allowing private carriers to choose who has to rely on wireless and who gets a wire and who gets what type of wire. The whole system has been turned upside down.”

You probably know that Crawford has made much hay lately with her claims that “Big Cable” has won the broadband wars.  In her view, the “old fashioned” telcos, like AT&T, simply can’t compete because they have supposedly given up on the only “proper” infrastructure upgrades a communications company need ever make – that is, FTTH.  Consequently, consumers are screwed, and the digital divide gapes even wider as a result.

Sure, Susan.

In Crawford’s radical estimation, a company like AT&T could spend a trillion dollars and it would never be enough.  That’s because she doesn’t want them in the business of delivering communications services in the first place.  For that, Uncle Sam, or his heavily subsidized proxy, is a better fit.  Of course, if companies like AT&T do have to be in the Internet business, Crawford believes that the “social contract” demands they be treated no better than indentured servants.  Profits should be strictly limited.  Property essentially confiscated.  Free speech of network operators squelched.

“How dare a private company make its own determinations of what the marketplace needs and can support!” Crawford seemingly decries.  “That turns the whole system upside down!”

You know what’s upside down?   Susan Crawford’s “progressive” version of market economics – which looks an awful lot like command and control regulation, or something worse, like Socialism.

Wasn’t that tried before someplace?  (I digress)

Progressive policy – whatever it is – cannot mean that companies like AT&T must remain shackled to dying, ossified and unprofitable business models.  No.  They must be able to flexibly change to meet the times, but also in a manner that is reasonably aligned with the public interest.  Quite simply, AT&T is making significant progress to this end.  They should be lauded for these efforts, not demonized.

If we follow Crawford’s view of “progression,” communications companies and the consumers that benefit from them would be locked into the 19th Century.  That serves no one except Crawford and misanthrope policymakers / legislators.

Look, even perennial incumbent playa’-hater, Stacey Higginbotham, thinks that “Ma Bell is going about this [transition] in the best way possible.”

‘Nuff said.

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