So President Obama has announced that the Internet should effectively be regulated as a public utility along the lines of the old-time Ma Bell phone system. He's asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reclassify internet traffic from information services (or Title I services under current Communications Act rules) to telecommunication services (or Title II services).
Obama is old enough to know better. If you think cable companies and internet service providers (ISPs) absolutely suck at customer service (and they pretty much do), they're simply faint echoes of the old Bell system, which set the standard for awfulness. "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company," joked the comedian Lily Tomlin back in the late '60s and early '70s. Public utilities and government-granted monopolies — the only sort that actually stick around for very long — are rarely famous for their customer service and innovative practices. "The Phone Company" was enough of a cultural shorthand for all that was bad, rotten, and bureaucratic in American life that it was the super-villain in the 1967 black comedy The President's Analyst.
That's from my new Time column.
One of the main arguments undergirding calls for reclassification and Net Neutrality more generally is the idea that ISPs are monopolies and thus immune to market forces that increase customer choice and satisfaction. That's simply not true.
According to the FCC's own findings, the speed and variety of American Internet connections are growing substantially every year. Despite claims that monopolistic ISPs don't have to listen to customers, 80% of households have at least two providers that can deliver the internet at 10Mbps or faster, which is FCC's top rating. It's in the increasingly intense battle over customers that a thousand flowers will bloom; all sorts of interesting, stupid, and dumb innovations will be tried; users will be empowered; and tomorrow's Internet will look radically different from today's.
And maybe, just maybe, customer service will be light years better than what was offered by the phone company of Obama's youth.