Speak Your Piece: Internet Ghosts

[imgbelt img=ghost320.jpg]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.

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Communications in the U.S. have been haunted since the 19th Century by commercial, judicial and even romantic interests. Many of the pioneers of what we now call “net neutrality” were rural Americans.

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.

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.

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