Friday, March 7, 2008

Telecommunications Irony

Monopolists, by keeping the market constantly understocked, by never fully supplying the effectual demand, sell their commodities much above the natural price, and raise their emoluments, whether they consist of wages or profit, greatly above their natural rate. ~ Adam Smith
I regularly check out the RSS feed from Paul McNamara's blog because he manages to come up with something interesting almost daily. Today he confused me a little.

He quotes the following bit of stuff that used to be found at variation Bell Telephone locations back in the 1980's:

There are two giant entities at work in our country, and they both have an amazing influence on our daily lives. . . one has given us radar, sonar, stereo, teletype, the transistor, hearing aids, artificial larynxes, talking movies, and the telephone. The other has given us the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, double-digit inflation, double-digit unemployment, the Great Depression, the gasoline crisis, and the Watergate fiasco. Guess which one is now trying to tell the other one how to run its business?
Then he adds a short comment: "Priceless. And timeless."

Now I regard Mr. McNamara as an astute observer, but, in this case, I would have expected him to note the irony of AT&T's self-agrandizement.

For example, how about all those wonderful things Ma Bell gave us? Radar and sonar came about because of one of those wars they decry, and a lot of the money to develop them came from the government they're bad-mouthing. I'm not sure when AT&T gave us talking movies, but if they want to claim it, so be it. The transistor came out of Bell Labs, which AT&T dumped long ago because it didn't generate immediate profits. And, of course, the ultimate irony is that the telephone company was not responsible for the invention of the telephone. The telephone invented the telephone company.

I find any self-portrayal by the regenerated telecommunications oligopoly to be disingenuous at best. Yes, the government is a highly imperfect instrument, which has gotten a lot more imperfect since the AT&T's and Exxon's have virtually bought and paid for our leadership. But on it's good days, it gave us rural electrification, a national pension plan, and greater opportunity for all. The phone company has given us charges for the Korean War tax for decades after the war ended, a surcharge for "universal broadband access", and increased rates in the form of various cute little surcharges.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about trying to find someone at Bellsouth who could tell me if and when DSL was coming out to my neck of the woods. I did get a reply after filing my complaint with the FCC. A very polite lady called to tell me that, basically, DSL would come to my neighborhood when it could reliably be determined that Hell had frozen over.

The only difference in the situation now that AT&T has nearly completed their reassembly by purchasing Bellsouth is that the cost of my dialup has been increased. AT&T apologized profusely for this but advised me that I could always upgrade to DSL -- which is not, of course, available in my area.

There's no cable here either, if you were wondering. I guess a hundred or so families who live a couple of miles outside of the limits of coverage don't count - even if we do pay a monthly surcharge to AT&T for "universal broadband."

So I can pay through the nose for satellite access, pay through the nose for wireless access, or stumble along at 56K.

Y'know, one of the things the government used to do is either bust monopolies or regulate them. There were rules about how much a utility could charge and what was expected in the way of improvements to the system. That's why Bell used to moan about "being told how to run their business." They were responsible to their customers. They don't have to be anymore because their customers don't have much choice.

My electric bill is over twice as high as it was a couple of years ago. Today, in my bill, there was a little flier touting the utilities efforts to use "green" power. Out of the goodness of their hearts, they would generate power using recycled trash, and the entire environment would benefit. If I wanted to participate it would cost me $2 per kilowatt-hour.

I wonder when AT&T will mandate some sort of environment-saving surcharge on their bill.

Without giving me a choice of whether I want to pay or not, of course.

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