Skype Gripes: Cellphones, Carterfones, and 1968

by on February 21, 2007

Don’t look now, but it may be time to dig out those old bell bottoms and love beads from your closet. The calendar may say its 2007, but in Washington regulatory circles it may soon be 1968 all over again. You may remember 1968 as a year of turmoil–with anti-war protests, assassinations, and the election of Richard Nixon. Forget all that. At the FCC, it was the year of the Carterfone decision, in which the Bell System was banned from restricting equipment consumers could put on their phone lines. The same year, the Commission allocated the first frequencies for cell phone service.

Both decisions revolutioned the communications world: Carterphone opened the first crack in the previously iron-clad, legally-protected Bell System monopoly to competition, and the cell phone allocation planting the seed for today’s wireless services, which shattered the idea of telephone monopolies at its root.

These two regulatory threads of 1968 are now on a collision course. Yesterday,
Skype –the Internet phone company now owned by eBay– petitioned the FCC to apply the Carterfone decision to wireless carriers (see Adam’s excellent post on this.) The filing follows by less than a week a paper by Tim Wu, father of the term “net neutrality”, endorsing the same idea (discussed here, here, here, here and here.)

Skype–whose founders weren’t even born in 1968–see Carterfone in grand Jeffersonian terms, using the word “right” some 35 times. One practically expects to read of the right to life, liberty, and the right to use non-harmful devices and software on telecommunications networks. Carterfone, however, did not create a right. It created a regulation. A regulation that was justifed in the face of a legally-protected, comprehensive, vertically-integrated old-fashioned monopoly, but a regulation nonetheless. It makes no sense to saddle today’s competitive, innovative and growing cell phone market with the same regulation.

The battle over regulation of wireless networks promises to be a divisive one–in effect a new front in the larger war over neutrality regulation that has been raging for over a year At its heart are two vastly different visions of how best to create competition: one based on forced access and restrictions mandated by government, the other based on reducing barriers to the creation of alternative networks, with consumers–through the marketplace–deciding how they should best be run. Network managers throughout the economy–and consumers as well–should be watching this debate with interest.

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