A recent Wall Street Journal point/counterpoint by Barbara Cochran on redistributing the wireless spectrum caught my eye with these catchy lines (emphasis mine):
‘First, do no harm.”
This lesson for first-year medical students should also be taught to government policy makers as they consider proposals to reallocate the nation’s airwaves. … Until it is certain that provisions are in place to protect the broadcast industry and television viewers from harm, spectrum auctions should not be held.
The idea that the broadcast industry, long the domain of oligarchic titans local and international, needs government protection from feisty cellular providers, was touching but not nearly so intriguing as the concept that rule number one should be protectionism: When looking at a potential revolution, in other words, step back and begin building a very solid, very thick, very wide wall.
If any industry is in upheaval, it is surely telecommunications. IP has changed the nature of commerce, of courtship and of connectedness. And as much as I hate (hate) dealing with current wireless providers, I am amazed and grateful for how individually and collectively empowering this revolution has been. From minor things – like being able to use a cell phone to change last minute reservations – to big things – like the Arab Spring – IP has overthrown so many of society assumptions about how things can and must work, and it’s not something to be lightly traded.
But for a long time, this wasn’t the vision of what the net was supposed to be. For one, it was chained down to a desk. For another, it was tied to serious academic and military purposes. But even when it (quickly) moved past that, the corporate controllers of Internet access CompuServe and Prodigy treated network connectivity like access to a walled garden: Discussions were pruned, prepared and moderated with at least some degree of central control.
Were these companies to have been protected with their models – so advanced at the time of their debut – the United States would have missed out on a revolution and trailed the world in innovation, access and connectedness. The “Do No Harm” principal would have devastated the country even as it sought to protect something of value.
And, in fact, to an extent it has: The United States still trails many other developed and even developing nations in terms of cost and access to true high speed Internet access, due to a number of factors. I would not and probably could not argue that wireless providers, the ones now seeking more spectrum, area saints here, but in general I think it’s the counter-revolutionary forces that have kept our connectivity lagging. Clever startups like Republic Wireless and scrappy also-rans like Boost Mobile put downwards pressure on price while providing much-needed competitive pressure to the big three wireless providers.
Holding back an entire industry because of the interests of even more outdated concerns is a prescription for disaster, but just as we see it again and again at the national level (see Congress’ bull-headed support of SOPA) it also holds back companies large and small: IT is a traditionally extremely conservative department, explaining why not more often than paving the way for the future. Just like local broadcasters can’t go back to the golden years of Cronkite, neither can businesses return to the simpler (ok, maybe not) times of tape storage and top-down control of which applications are deployed where, when and how without feedback from the hoi polloi.