I write a lot of about the battle among large technology corporations in this space and the importance of competitive checks and balances. Yet Comcast seems to be growing into a super power with control over the very pipes that provide many of us with internet access, but without any real competition and often with government support.
Most places in this country get internet access through one or at most two providers. That kind of concentration of power is increasingly a threat to the very foundation of business and society, as so many of us use the internet on one level or another to do our jobs, get our information and connect to one another.
Low Competition and Not forced to Share Pipes
Unlike the phone companies, which years ago were forced to share their copper wires with competitors who offer cheaper service, the US Supreme Court ruled years ago that cable companies did not share the same obligation; which is a puzzling decision when you think about it. If phone companies have to share their wires, why don't the cable providers? In fact, when that decision was made back in 2005, most cable companies didn't offer phone service. They now do, yet they are still not required by regulators to behave in the same fashion as the phone companies. The only difference here mind you is the type of wire.
Perhaps the only real difference is Comcast's power base and the millions it's spending in Washington to ensure that it isn't forced to play by the same rules. We know from experience that as technology advances, it's not unusual for government regulation to be slow to catch up, but we are far enough along the path at this point, and the lines between these types of services have become sufficiently blurred, that it makes little sense not to even the playing field and force competition.
Comcast's Big and It's Getting Bigger
Just recently Comcast bought NBC Universal, which means as we move forward (assuming the deal is approved, and there's little reason to believe it won't), that Comcast will not only own the cable, but they'll be producing their own content as well. Some have suggested that this deal is similar to the Time Warner/AOL deal that proved to be a huge failure, but AOL was a company in decline at the purchase time. Comcast and NBCU are healthy companies.
While it's always possible that cultural clashes and poor implementation could eventually torpedo the deal, for now, it leaves Comcast in an extremely powerful position controlling both content creation and the distribution system that both it and its content production competitors must use. Not exactly a recipe for competitive pressure and all of the positive results that competition brings.
Let's Build Our Own
One way out of this, is to create municipal internet access, an idea that was bandied about quite frequently before our economic meltdown. A story in this week's Valley Advocate, an alternative weekly newspaper that publishes in western Massachusetts, applauds an effort by my hometown of Amherst, MA to create its own small wireless network within the confines of its cozy downtown. The network, a product of a partnership between UMass Amherst and the town, with the help of some hefty grants, provides a snapshot of how we could create these types of systems independent of the larger providers like Comcast.
In tough economic times, it's hard to put the burden for such systems onto cities and towns already struggling to cover existing costs, but the economy will rebound eventually, and when it does, having wireless networks on the long-term plan will help push these ideas forward and perhaps begin to chip away at the alarmingly growing power of companies like Comcast to control our access to the internet.