~ Archive for May 20, 2003 ~

Wireless Internet in the US = Neo-Feudalism?


After two days of touring Wales, a country that apparently has yet to discover the mixing faucet, it has become apparent that there is better mobile phone coverage in the remotest sheep pasture or coastal outcrop than in downtown Boston. How can such an otherwise backward place be so far ahead of the U.S. technologically?

Most folks are familiar with the story: in Europe the governments mandated that all cell phone systems be built using the GSM standard. Thus you can make or receive a call any time that you’re within range of any antenna from any provider In practice this means nearly 100 percent coverage of the land area of Europe.

One of the advantages that the U.S. had over Europe in the days prior to European Union was an absence of trade barriers. In feudal times every local duke or prince was able to levy tariffs on goods traveling through his town. Thus it became cheaper to undertake the hazardous sea voyage round the horn of Africa rather than pay all the toll collectors on the land route. Pre-Union Europe retained some of the vestiges of that feudalism and her economic growth was inhibited.

The U.S. by contrast was a model of efficiency. The government built roads from coast to coast and you could drive a truckload of goods from Virginia to California without paying a toll. True free marketeers will argue that it is better to charge road users every time they set their tires on pavement and this may indeed be the case in our congested cities. But most of the time the cost to society of an additional car on the road is too small to bother collecting and the road generates economic growth for all, thus justifying the role of government in paying for it.

Let’s look at wireless Internet for a moment. The ability to send a few packets of information from Point A to Point B without laying expensive cables can spawn a tremendous variety of new computer applications. Using computers intelligently saves energy, cuts pollution, increases security, and generates wealth. What do we see when we open the newspaper? Our politicians trying to figure out how to ameliorate the pernicious effects of feudalism in the Arab world. Occasionally there will be an article about T-Mobile or some other company building an 802.11 network in the U.S. There are going to be lots of competing networks apparently. For any given network you’ll pay $30/month for spotty coverage. While our politicians fret about old-style feudalism in the Muslim world they ignore neo-feudalism springing up in their midst.

Per capita, American citizens pay some of the highest taxes on the planet. 802.11 infrastructure is ridiculously cheap (e.g., $50 base stations). The public is allegedly the owner of the electromagnetic spectrum. Why can’t we combine these facts to conclude that every U.S. citizen ought to be entitled to transmit and receive a certain number of bits per year? Perhaps one’s free entitlement wouldn’t be enough to watch streaming video 24/7. But it would certainly be enough that your car could receive a text message from your wife while you were halfway to the grocery store: “The smoke alarm needs a 9V battery; add it to the list.” It would be enough that your car could notify your apartment that you were on your way home and to turn the heat up. It would be enough that your car could notify your palmtop or wristtop that it was being attacked by thieves. It would be enough that a medical monitor attached to your grandparent at home could transmit measurements and alerts to a doctor.

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