I remember years ago interviewing then-Idaho Public Utilities Commissioner Perry Swisher, a smart, opinionated and cantankerous former state legislator and newspaper editor and reporter. Federal Judge Harold Greene had just issued his landmark decision – we are still living with the consequences – that “broke up” Ma Bell. I wanted to know the Commissioner’s view.
Swisher, an old school kind of guy, said of the 1984 break up of AT&T, and I think I can quote it correctly after all these years: “Judge Greene took the only perfect thing in the world and screwed it up.”
Swisher may or may not have been correct about the big break up of the phone company. After all, that decision arguably sparked decades of innovation in how we use telecommunications, but it also vastly complicated for the technically challenged among us the range of options, approaches, gadgets and applications.
Still in all, the change was probably inevitable. The famous Judge Greene, for example, often observed, as the The Washington Post noted upon his death in 2000, “that the telephone industry grew up in the copper wire days when it was a natural monopoly, and that when microwaves made it possible to bypass the wooden pole network, the monopoly could not last.”
I couldn’t help but think about former-PUC Commissioner Swisher and Judge Greene as I’ve read the avalanche of coverage around the Federal Communications Commission decisions on “net neutrality.” I don’t pretend to be an expert, or even a reasonably well-informed observer, of what role the FCC should play in managing access to the web. I do know, like Judge Greene in the early 1980’s, that FCC commissioners can make decisions that fosters innovation, access and nearly unimaginable new applications, or they can “screw up” something that seems to be working pretty well as is.
The FCC’s decision seems to have something for everyone to dislike.
National Journal and PC Magazine have good summaries of what the FCC rules mean. One thing it surely means is that the political, regulatory and economic debate about how to run the Internet is really about to get very heated and very interesting.
My requirements are pretty basic, if the FCC is listening. I want equal access from my desk top or my wireless device and I don’t mind paying reasonable fees for that access, but I don’t want my Internet provider deciding I can’t access some other providers content. Like the Judge Greene decision, as complicated as it once made the simple act of finding a long distance carrier, I want to unleash the marketplace, but I also want a tough cop, sort of like we need on Wall Street, making sure my access is secure.
In other words, I want the best of the capitalist approach with just the appropriate delicate balance of regulation and oversight that protects the user and not just the provider. Doesn’t seem like too much to ask.