THE BLOG

Beyond the Valley: Elephant Dung and Sloth Sluggery

29/05/2014 12:54 BST | Updated 27/07/2014 10:59 BST

We have all the time in the world.

Why? Today we can work, play, love, connect and compute everywhere. Un-tethered from having to plug in wires, be near a desktop, dial up or screw up. Right?

No.

Especially in the West, the Elephantine pipes that make the magic possible are covered with Sloths. Ancient, neglected, poorly specified or else just missing.

Access to Data is treated by most governments as a nice to have, not a Utility.

Think about what a Utility is. Light. Power. Gas. Water. Post. Phones. Banking.

They make the Late 19th Century economy, and ours today, hum.

Data is the same. Access to data is not a political priority.

Public services and business assume 'broadband'. Providers, huge and credible, small and clever, tiny and silly vie for custom and governments treat this contest as any other consumer product like burgers or underwear. Hands off and let the best win.

Wrinkles in these knickers make it a Slothkini. And those Sloths sure know how to party. Especially on the backs of sleepwalking Elephants.

Years ago I decided to invest in a 'business' broadband account that offers service and a minimum speed for an additional cost less than that of one dodgy takeaway every month.

Turn the clock back to 1982 to smell why.

In the USA, the Bell System was fighting for its life. The Bell System was a heavily regulated private sector telecoms monopoly. A Utility.

There is such a thing as a Natural Monopoly. Financial realities mean that in one country, if across regions, delivery of Utilities demands the efficiencies and pricing power, not just to consumers, but from the financial markets, of a big player to ensure universal provision. The disaster of energy in broken up markets shows why. Running wires to deliver power and the ability to generate it is not a standard business challenge that responds to competition - a well capitalised firm must do the hard yards and burn cash to do it. The basket case of UK energy policy, with low margin broken up and sold off providers sweating to deliver amongst public hate, is a tragedy. The Bell System needed reform long before 82, but to be fair to it, it also created the modern world.

The Bell System is why you are reading this.

There was a Gentlemen's Agreement that the Bell System would dominate US telecoms with guaranteed profits. A taboo in a free market economy. But there was a price to pay, and one that benefited the planet forever.

Revenue flows ensured an ever improving universal standard of service - no one would pay much for local phone calls or phone hardware itself. It was a right beyond anything ever achieved for even water. The service got better year on year with innovation and investment.

Profits were shoved into research which humanity will benefit from forever.

All aspects of our lives from the transistor (responsible for everything from radios smaller than fridges to computing) to the Internet to the UNIX operating system that forms the basis for every iPhone and more was conjured from this magic.

It was all cross-subsidised in a way that caused rage. "Ma Bell" was a dreaded punchline, a figure of fun and resentment. And a burden.

"Long Distance" calls were expensive, "International" punishingly so. Individuals and businesses winced at the costs. Spivvy operators found a niche in feeling their pain.

Bell Labs made our world.

But it was killed in 1983 when it finally rolled over and succomed to political and legal pressure.

Sloths and woozy White Elephants crushed the onward march of telecoms. Today a new dominant conglomerate seeks to emerge, without the world changing mission of Ma Bell. Financial pain without public gain. Stateside broadband is slothing down to sub Third World speeds, and many other Western countries will soon join the death march.

Governments are making it worse. Mobile operators are heavily taxed for access to spectrum before being forced to hold on to it for a generation or more beyond it's relevance. Return on investment is a bad joke when firms are forced to offer access, at cost, to fly by night operators operating with less margin than a downmarket lemonade stand. All the major tech and media brands are weighing in to the "net neutrality" debate to ensure customers can access their services, and they are not taxed by telecoms providers just to have customers in the first place.

Net Neutrality is one of the most important issues for us all today - too much so to be left to geeks, the tech pages and Sloth infested governments.

Think about it. The great equaliser of the net may well become pay to play. Imagine a world where white goods makers had to pay to get you the juice to turn on a washing machine, or Mark Zuckerberg was kept small time unless and until he could pony up to pay to let people log in to his new Facebook. What filth. That would keep us all poor in every way.

Consumers are part of the rot. You can't have decent unlimited broadband for a monthly fee less than the price of a pint of beer in a chain pub.

The State needs to mandate universal access to speedy data as both a right and a national priority. Consumers need to pay a bit more.

In a better world, we would have a total split between wholesale provision of Utilities and retail sale of access. Massive, international firms would be immune from some anti-monopoly laws as long as they pushed it all forward year on year and could only make money from keeping their retail, consumer facing customers happy.

But like so much wrong with the world we are in, this would need a trashing of old taboos at the highest level. These include: Big is bad, cheap is good, more means better. 'Competition' is perfect and wonderful even in Utilities where it often imposes costs, complexity and crap services on consumers.

Sadly, unless the elephants awaken and stomp these old taboos, the smart money is on the Sloth party continuing indefinitely.

2014-05-27-elephantmarchtogethercopy.png