Regulations & Computing – Laws are Weird

The progression of computing is not in the hands of technologists alone. There are many forces shaping the technology landscape, such as the DOJ and FCC. In order to understand the direction that technology is moving towards, we must also understand the role that socio-political forces will inevitably play in the evolution of computing. In 1984, these regulatory bodies changed the course of history when they declared that the most powerful communications company in the world, AT&T, would have to break-up their operations. This breakup signaled the beginning of what would become a massive period of change in the telecommunications market. Local communications, once a heavily guarded jewel in the Bell Empire was, for the first time, open to attack. The next blow to Ma Bell came in 1996 with the Telecommunications Act. This act required telecommunications providers to interconnect with entrants at any feasible point within the network. This opened the flood gates for what would become a full-scale attack on the AT&T’s last remaining stronghold, the long distance market.

As Ma Bell desperately tried to salvage the remains of her crumbling kingdom, cable providers slowly built up their strength. Unlike the telephone companies, cable companies have not suffered from the same level of regulatory constraints. Phone companies must lease their high-speed Internet lines to competing ISPs because they provide a “telecommunications service.” Unlike the phone companies, cable companies have not been forced to open their networks to rival ISPs because the FCC has deemed cable an “information service.” Leveraging their protected status, cable companies like Comcast has built up a veritable empire. Comcast now offers a vast array of integrated services such as digital cable, high-speed Internet access, and voice communications. Rumor has it the Comcast is even looking at buying a stake in former dot-com giant, AOL. Even more odd perhaps is that SBC, one of the “Baby Bells” is now buying back it’s parent at a deal valued upwards of $16B in attempt to stay competitive.

Does anyone else find it to be odd how the FCC staunchly opposed one communications monopoly and has now effectively bolstered the rise of another through their creation and enforcement of policy? Laws are weird.

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