Zen and the art of telecom sucking

22 Mar

I don’t know about anyone else, but whenever I get back from vacation I make a concerted effort not to let reality back in too quickly and thereby ruin the zen I’ve accumulated over the preceding few weeks. Of course, that effort always fails, usually within a day or two. I’ve found that the amount of time you can preserve your relaxed mindset depends entirely on how much you care about what you do on a day-to-day basis. As such, I often envy people who just punch in to their jobs and don’t give a damn because, truth be told, I usually get worked up about the stuff I write about. I often wish that wasn’t the case.

When it comes to technology and telecommunications, areas I’ve covered for many years now, I’m very torn. The longer I write about technology, the more I come to believe in it as a positive force of nature – more powerful than any earthquake or tsunami imaginable. Over the course of human existence, we’ve used technology to dramatically improve our lot in life and accomplish some incredible feats. We’re continually living longer, fighting less, knowing each other better and reaching new heights as a species. Given enough time, I believe science and technology can overcome any problem as it inches us ever closer to Utopia.

Then there’s telecommunications – particularly telecom companies – who we currently depend on to disseminate much of that technology, given that it’s largely network dependent. Very little can get done without our information flowing over fibre or wireless networks, most of which are the domains of publicly-owned companies who are hungry for ever-increasing profits. I’m as capitalist as the next former National Post employee, but something about this situation is incongruous. If technology is such an important, evolutionary force that continually improves the world, should its distribution be solely determined by profit-driven companies? It doesn’t seem like it should, should it? Forces of nature probably shouldn’t be privatized.

More and more countries are realizing this, which is why – while they’ve stopped short of nationalizing networks – they are at least taking steps toward correcting this discrepancy with various kinds of open-access rules and initiatives. In North America though, we’re far more focused on the short term and convinced that market forces are more powerful than historical forces, which is why we allow our telecom companies to do pretty much as they will.

I’m thus torn, whenever bad news emerges, between a serious discomfort that history is leaving us behind and the notion that we must let history happen naturally.

Over the weekend, AT&T announced it was buying T-Mobile USA from its German parent Deutsche Telekom, taking the field of national wireless carriers in the United States down to three from four. Everybody here in Canada knows we’ve had big enough problems for years with only three, so to have the same number of options in a country 10 times as big seems predestined to arrive at the same if not worse outcome, i.e. high prices and poor service. That’s why everyone but the telecom companies and their army of lobbyists and apologists are saying the AT&T deal is very bad for just about everyone other than the takeover parties’ shareholders.

Will U.S. regulators and government, who have already expressed concern that the U.S. wireless market is becoming uncompetitive, allow the deal? Well, given that promises of strong net neutrality rules from the president himself look like they won’t happen, we can pretty much count on the buyout going through.

A month ago, that probably would have made me angry. Today, relaxed and full of zen, I say “meh.”

Ten years ago, the United States and Canada were world broadband leaders. Now, we’re both middle of the pack at best. If we continue on the paths we’ve set, then 10 years from now we’ll be at the bottom of the barrel. The same is true for wireless.

Sometimes we have to let history teach its painful lessons. In the meantime, Americans better get ready for even higher wireless prices and poorer service. In the grand scheme of things, it also might be a good idea to start learning how to speak Korean or Swedish.

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Posted by on March 22, 2011 in internet, mobile, telecommunications


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