Today's Internet is haunted by the same forces that have tried to restrict communications for more than 100 years. Wally Bowen describes the haunted history of the FCC.
The current battle over net neutrality has deep roots, oddly enough, in rural America.
In 1891, a Kansas undertaker named Almon Strowger patented the first telephone switch. His innovation, he would later say, was compelled by a local telephone operator who limited calls to his business while favoring calls to his competitor, with whom she was romantically involved.
The telephone switch, in turn, enabled federal “common carrier” rules to ensure non-discriminatory treatment of all phone calls, a regulatory regime which has governed our nation’s telephone system for more than 100 years. But there’s more to the net neutrality back-story.
In the 1950s, a Texas cattle rancher named Thomas Carter believed he could connect a two-way radio to the telephone back at his ranch-house, allowing him to make calls while riding his far-flung ranch on horseback. By 1958, his CarterPhone was working and ready to market. But AT&T cried foul, claiming this new application might harm its network. A 10-year legal battle ensued. It ended when the Federal Communications Commission approved the CarterPhone rule, which stated that innovative applications could connect if they did no harm to the network.
The CarterPhone regulation gave us innovations such as fax, answering machines, and data modems. Combined, common carrier and CarterPhone regulations are the heart of net neutrality.
Indeed, the greatest telecommunications innovation of all time – the Internet – was possible because of these regulations. But this regulatory landscape changed dramatically in 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court – in a 6-3 ruling – said these rules did not apply to broadband cable networks. Immediately, the big phone companies petitioned the FCC to exempt their broadband DSL service from these rules. In a 3-2 party-line vote, the FCC went along. The battle over net neutrality, which had simmered since the advent of broadband, boiled over.
This debate has lasted almost a decade. Technology companies and entrepreneurs whose innovations took root in the fertile soil of the Internet’s neutral playing-field have long supported common-carrier and CarterPhone rules for the broadband-fueled Internet.
Net neutrality was a major issue of the presidential campaign. Candidate Obama and many Congressional candidates promised to restore net neutrality, so that future generations of innovators and entrepreneurs could enjoy the freedom to innovate and compete that marked the Internet’s first two decades.
Now, at the 11th hour, the ghosts of 19th-century network control are stalking the halls of Congress, trying to spook unsuspecting lawmakers into believing that net neutrality will “stifle investment” and economic growth.
These are the same companies whose Wall Street business models relegated rural America and low-income urban neighborhoods to the back-of-the-line for network investment.
This is no time for 19th-century command-and-control business models. It’s time to restore net neutrality and let all of America’s innovators and investors – rural and urban – compete on a level
Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), a nonprofit Internet service provider in western North Carolina since 1996. For instant updates, link to MAIN on Facebook and Twitter.