Railroads, superhighways, and the fight for fair access

How can we save Net neutrality from today's robber barons? By looking at strategies against yesterday's robber barons

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Then cars and airlines became popular around the 1950s, and train service saw a decline in passenger traffic -- we call this competition. But because the railroad was deemed a basic transportation utility, it received government subsidies subject to audit. More changes in regulation over the next several decades brought sometimes up/sometimes down service personified by Amtrak -- but it was always there. U.S. citizens always had access to this and other forms of public transportation, as they should. Amtrak has even seen an uptick in customers over the last couple of years (yes, another oversimplification, but in big-picture terms, accurate.)

The telecoms take and keep taking
Sure, our tax dollars paid for it, but switching back to modern-day data service, we're already paying for data infrastructure. Witness the $200 billion tax subsidy the telecomm providers received due to the ill-designed Telecommunications Act of 1996 about which I already wrote the following back in 2007:

Over the decade from 1994-2004 the major telephone companies profited from higher phone rates paid by all of us, accelerated depreciation on their networks, and direct tax credits an average of $2,000 per subscriber for which the companies delivered precisely nothing in terms of service to customers. That's $200 billion with nothing to be shown for it.

Poorly thought-out deregulation resulted in megamergers that limited our choices, raised prices for basic services, and made $200 billion of actual and proposed high-speed infrastructure evaporate in the murky mists of byzantine big-corporate accounting -- directly because we left the industry open to its own devices while still pouring in money and demanding zero accountability. Now it's why we pay more for Internet access than almost any other country on the planet, but only rank ninth or 10th on access speed, probably right behind Somalia.

Modern necessities
Getting back to the argument that Internet access isn't really necessary to civilized humans, like heat and electricity: that's nuts. You don't want heat? You can turn off that service and chop wood -- in fact, wood-burning stoves are booming in survival bunkers. Don't want to pay the electric company? There's solar and wind power. It's not easy or practical, but neither is wardriving every time you need to look for a job or do your homework. We need heat. We need power. We need the Internet.

And it shouldn't be relegated solely to people who can afford $50 to $180 per month. If you think that's affordable by everyone, I'll give you one counterexample: As a player of the NSA-infested World of Warcraft MMORPG, I've seen multiple online friends drop the game because they couldn't afford it. World of Warcraft costs $14.95 per month. That's my weekly Starbucks budget, yet a large swath of America apparently doesn't have that kind of money.

Warcraft certainly isn't a necessity, but communication sure is, especially if you harbor any hopes of getting in on the digital economy. Example: Resumes are sent via email; they're broadcast via LinkedIn, and HR routinely checks Facebook profiles for references. Sure, you can send a paper resume to a mailbox, but do you really think that gives you the same chance as someone who can do so electronically? Having zero Internet footprint today is like wearing a tinfoil hat to your job interview.

I hope those opinions are strong enough. To be clear, I don't think well-considered, pro-customer regulation is going to happen anytime soon. Our legislators are too uninformed and too susceptible to well-funded lobbyists; our legislative and legal processes are too slow.

In the cold light of reality, I reiterate my previous statement: Both sides are going to tussle, we're going to suffer, and the shakeout will continue ad nauseum. But if you want to know which black-and-white side I'm on, I hope I've made myself clear.

This article, "Railroads, superhighways, and the fight for fair access," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, follow Cringely on Twitter, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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