The Bad Old Days

In 2009 I had a real “Living in the Future” moment; at a conference in Brisbane, I ducked out of the last presentation a few minutes early, found a quiet spot in the lobby connecting the hotel’s conference rooms, popped open my laptop, and videoconferenced with my daughter in Wellington to say good night to her. It hit me afterwards that this felt like such a “golden sci-fi moment”.

That feeling was probably heightened by my experiences, 30-odd years before, when my father had been travelling on business. He would head off to such then-exotic locales as Kuala Lumpar or Tokyo for a week at a time, perhaps more, and from the time he stepped on the prop plane at New Plymouth airport until the time he came back with t-shirts, Air New Zealand hard-boiled lollies, or, on especially extraordinary occasions, Nintendo portable games (impossible to get in New Zealand), he would be out of contact. Timezones weren’t the problem; we couldn’t afford to call overseas, what with calls being in the ‘many dollars per minute’ bracket[1], and travelling didn’t allow for such fripperies as phoning home. This was the bad old days, now alleviated by cheap ubiquitious Internet access and webcams providing the option of making the stuff of my childhood sci-fi (well, the bits about video calling, not so much the bits about interplanetary travel) a simple thing indeed.

Did I say the bad old days? I did. Well, it was the bad old days for me, and, unless you were a telco executive or part of an opressive regime, it was the bad old days for you, gentle reader. We didn’t get from there to here easily, either: I’m not talking about the technical and logistical challenges of building webcams so cheap almost every laptop has one, or high-speed networks than span the planet, but rather the challenges of forcing this down the telco monopolies throats: from a Kiwi perspective I lived through the use of the Telepermit system[2] to enforce a near-monopoly on the supply of slow, expensive modems; the attempts to add extra charges for data calls (“Fuck you, buy ISDN”); the obstructiveness around multiple lines in the home (“Fuck you, buy ISDN”); insistence that the phone network couldn’t support anything faster than a 9600 bps modem (“Fuck you, buy ISDN”)… you get the picture, which was common the world over: unless forced by regulation, telcos have ardently opposed the Internet: providing bits flowing through pipes which anyone can use to provide interesting and innovative services is an anaethma to organisations used to thinking in terms of breaking every activity into a seperate, chargable product they own from end-to-end, provided as of an when they feel like, clipping the ticket many times per transaction.

That’s why this story should alarm you. Not the silly headline, but the guts of it: the ITU, an opaque entity which exists solely to serve the interests of the telcos, is looking to leverage UN mandates to regain the kind of control they enjoyed a few decades ago, control that sovereign governments have been consistently stripping back, particularly in Europe, to the benefit of their citizens. Rather we would see a return to the bad old days, where telcos decide which services may and may run across their network, charging three, four, or more times for the same packets to traverse the same infrastructure, upgraded at the pace those telcos feel comfortable, a proposal rammed down the throats of nations by unelected, unaccountable committees formed by by a mix of the most perfectly rapacious capatalists and the state-owned flunkies of dictators.

The thing that pisses me off most with this proposal, I think, beyond the simple damage it will wreak if passed, is the use of “innovation” as a term to justify it: there had never been much in the way “innovation” from unregulated telcos contributing to the Internet as we benefit from it; rather, they have fought it every damn step of the way. This is not funding for innovation, it’s funding to kill innovation.

[1] For those unfamiliar with the era, allow me to provide perspective by noting I could buy a pack of chips for 10 or 20 cents around this time, depending on the chips. A pie for lunch was less than a dollar. [2] the Telepermit was ostensibly an indication that a third-party device - handsets, modems, answerphones - was electrically safe to connect to the Telecom network; introduced after the old Post Office monopoly on connecting devices was broken, it was brought into disrepute relatively early on when in became clear that the cost and time to get things telepermitted was merely aimed at protecting the revenute streams and market segmentation pricing previously enjoyed by have an actual monopoly.