Tech Infrastructure and Monopolies

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Tech Infrastructure and Monopolies

When I was a kid, phone design was still pretty much in its infancy–the “Princess” phone was pretty much the height of technology then.  It wasn’t bolted to the wall!  The dial lit up!  It came in colors other than black or beige!  Eventually, it even had buttons instead of a dial!

In those prehistoric days, everything ran across copper, and 99% or more of the traffic was voice–ARPANET was just getting going, and all we primitive creatures did was make one-to-one phone calls.  (The concept of a many-to-many phone call–a “party call”–was almost insanely exotic to me.)  So worry about the “technological infrastructure” was, well, not on anyone’s radar.

Which was good, because the vast majority of phone traffic and phone equipment was under the control of one company, a giant monopoly that we called “Ma Bell”:  AT&T.  If you wanted a phone installed in your house, or (God forbid!) a second line, you contacted Ma Bell, and they promised to have someone out there to help as soon as they could . . . say, between 9am and 5pm, three weeks from now.  How would that work for you, Mr. Moran?

But we’ve made a lot of progress since those backward old days!  The Nixon Administration decided that a telephone monopoly was BADtm, and spent a lot of effort breaking it up.  The resulting companies were called “baby Bells” for a while–they were (essentially) AT&T broken up by region–Southern Bell, Atlantic Bell, and what have you.

Then a couple of things happened.

President Reagan, a big believer in the Capitalist system, put through a lot of deregulation.  Starting at about this time and up until the present day, big companies were allowed to get bigger pretty much unfettered.  There is a Federal procedure through which ‘Huge Company A’ must go through before it purchases ‘Huge Company B’, but typically, the “Gubmint” lets all such sales through pretty much unhindered.  So companies started getting bigger and bigger.  And funnily enough, the Baby Bells started buying each other.

The second big thing is something everyone know about:  the Internet exploded.  A vast project was undertaken to beef up our telecommunications infrastructure with microwave and cell relay towers, fiber optic networks, satellite links, and tons of other stuff.

Eventually, one of the Baby Bells, Southwestern Bell, managed to buy up pretty much all the other Baby Bells, and renamed itself (wait for it) AT&T.  That’s right:  AT&T lives again.  And funnily enough, it’s ‘way bigger than before, owning satellites, cell phone networks, and tons of other stuff.  Which creates a choke point–if one company owns a ton of infrastructure, as AT&T does, and if that company is relentlessly pursuing a profit, that leads to a problem.  Companies tend to cut costs to the bare bones, trying to increase profit.  It’s just natural.  Which means–as we can see with BP in the Gulf–that an emergency can cause a huge problem, because a Big Company doesn’t have any financial incentive to keep a lot of emergency response resources in place if they only might get used.  See?  Lots of money spent, but no money taken in.  It’s natural they want to do that–dangerous and frightening, but natural.

So why did I bring all this up?  The country today is wired tight with telecommunications infrastructure.  People rely on it for all kinds of things now; not just calling Granny on her birthday, but things like ordering products, doing business, and pretty much everything else you can imagine.  So when a series of storms rips through an area, say … Texas, and causes outages, it can cause real problems.  And when a company … like AT&T … has no financial incentive to keep a lot of trained telecom techs standing by in case of emergency, you can get backups for repair needs.  And this is a big worry.

The bottom line is this:  back in the day, you were at the mercy of AT&T, Ma Bell, to come and install (or fix) your phone service.  But Ma Bell, as bad as it could be, was run under a heavy blanket of government regulation, so things never got too bad.  Now, with AT&T huge again, but with a lot of the regulation stripped away (or obsolete), we’re no longer in a position where Ma Bell can say, “Well, how about two weeks from now on Tuesday, between 9 and 5.”  No sir.  We’ve come a long way since those bad ol’ days.

No, what happens now when a storm knocks out a guy’s internet service is that he calls AT&T on his miraculous iPhone.  And he goes through an automated system that, shortly, sends him an email.  And the helpful email tells him that he can expect an AT&T tech to get out to his area . . . next Friday.  Between 8am and 8pm.  (And no, I am absolutely not exaggerating.)

Yeah, we’ve come a long way, baby.  I guess.

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