New Wireless Networking Proposal Has Cellphone Companies Up In Arms

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In 1985, the FCC created an open spectrum for broadcast devices, over the complaints of the industry at that time. This forward-thinking move enabled the creation of a myriad of tools we take for granted today, from garage door openers to baby monitors. It has been a huge growth industry.

With this history behind them, the FCC is considering a similar move, this time for wireless computer networking. This, however, has garnered some bitter kickback from the cellular networks, who have launched a massive lobbying effort in an attempt to kill the proposal. They argue that all airwaves should be auctioned off to them, and they want to lock any innovation out of the system. Naturally, they have Republican allies in Congress who feel the same way.

This new unlicensed spectrum would not be as robust or capable as the cellular system, but would have the advantage of being free, which would attract those who would want to develop new technologies and uses for it. The big network companies, of course, do not want any competition, instead preferring locked-in long-term contracts for their customers, where they can charge for every bit of data. Their insistence that the airwaves should be auctioned off–especially when this particularly when the spectrum is not the most powerful or capable–demonstrates what it is that the networks fear most: competition. They want competition with each other, not with some unknown future technologies that they cannot evaluate or control (or even imagine the existence of, yet) ahead of time. This is the new normal for established industries, and is a prime example as to why there truly is no such thing as a free market. By controlling the networks, they can control what goes over those networks, which means they can also prevent content they disagree with from getting out.

What they fear is what will happen: a disruptive new technology emerging. The previous move disrupted established entities, which used high-priced and overly complicated technologies, and were often quickly dumped in favor of the new technologies. The real irony is that without a similar move–such as when the government got rid of the land-line telephone company monopoly of AT&T and Ma Bell in the early 1980’s–today’s cellular phone industry would not even exist. We’d all still be tied to stationary phones rather than enjoying the convenience of portable phones that fit inside a small pants pocket or purse. This move by the cellular companies is a sign of short-sighted thinking, and an act of desperation. It also shows that they have become the very same problem which prevented their own existence not even 30 years ago: they control a valuable resource, and their power and size may allow them to throw their weight around and thereby stifle technological advances and innovations.

Progress moves in one direction; you can not fight it forever: the more you do, the worse off you will be in the longer term. What the network companies is trying to do is not an act to preserve their market, it is simple corporate suicide over the long-term. They should be celebrating the idea, not attacking it or trying to buy it in order to keep it to themselves. It would encourage them to maintain their networks and to prevent outages, which would be a great way to demonstrate why people should use them instead of an alternative, less robust system…but that would be capitalism, and we all know how much the Republicans, and the corporate masters, hate capitalism.

Nathaniel Downes is the son of a former state representative of New Hampshire, now living in Seattle Washington.

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