Rural America's stake
in “Net Neutrality”
By Wally Bowen
The current battle over net neutrality has deep roots, oddly enough, in
In 1891, a Kansas undertaker named
Almon Strowger patented the first telephone switch. His innovation, he
would later say, was compelled by a local telephone operator who limited
calls to his business while favoring calls to his competitor, with whom she
was romantically involved.
The telephone switch, in turn, enabled federal “common carrier” rules to
ensure non-discriminatory treatment of all phone calls, a regulatory regime
which has governed our nation's telephone system for more than 100 years. But
there's more to the net neutrality back-story.
In the 1950s, a Texas cattle rancher named
Thomas Carter believed he could connect a two-way radio to the telephone
back at his ranch-house, allowing him to make calls while riding his
far-flung ranch on horseback. By 1958, his CarterPhone was working and ready
to market. But AT&T cried foul, claiming this new application might harm
its network. A 10-year legal battle ensued. It ended when the Federal
Communications Commission approved the CarterPhone rule, which stated that
innovative applications could connect if they did no harm to the network.
The CarterPhone regulation gave us innovations such as fax, answering
machines, and data modems. Combined, common carrier and CarterPhone
regulations are the heart of net neutrality.
Indeed, the greatest telecommunications innovation of all time – the
Internet – was possible because of these regulations. But this regulatory
landscape changed dramatically in 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court – in a 6-3
ruling – said these rules did not apply to broadband cable networks.
Immediately, the big phone companies petitioned the FCC to exempt their
broadband DSL service from these rules. In a 3-2 party-line vote, the FCC
went along. The battle over net neutrality, which had simmered since the
advent of broadband, boiled over.
This debate has lasted almost a decade. Technology companies and
entrepreneurs whose innovations took root in the fertile soil of the
Internet's neutral playing-field have long supported common-carrier and
CarterPhone rules for the broadband-fueled Internet.
Net neutrality was a major issue of the presidential campaign. Candidate
Obama and many Congressional candidates promised to restore net neutrality,
so that future generations of innovators and entrepreneurs could enjoy the
freedom to innovate and compete that marked the Internet's first two
Now, at the 11th hour, the ghosts of 19th-century network control are
stalking the halls of Congress, trying to spook unsuspecting lawmakers into
believing that net neutrality will “stifle investment.”
These are the same companies whose Wall Street business models relegated
rural America and low-income urban neighborhoods to the back-of-the-line for
This is no time for 19th-century command-and-control business models. It's
time to restore net neutrality and let all of America's innovators and
investors – rural and urban – compete on a level playing field.
(Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of the Mountain Area
Information Network (MAIN), a nonprofit Internet service provider in western
North Carolina since 1996.)