If you were going to look for ground zero in the fight against a rapidly consolidating telecom and cable industry, you might end up on the fifth floor of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York.
Susan Crawford, a professor at the school, has written a book, “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age,” that offers a calm but chilling state-of-play on the information age in the United States. She is on a permanent campaign, speaking at schools, conferences and companies — she was at Google last week — and in front of Congress, asserting that the status quo has been great for providers but an expensive mess for everyone else.
Ms. Crawford argues that the airwaves, the cable systems and even access to the Internet have been overtaken by monopolists who resist innovation and chronically overcharge consumers.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was meant to lay down track to foster competition in a new age, allowed cable companies and telecoms to simply divide markets and merge their way to monopoly. If you are looking for the answer to why much of the developed world has cheap, reliable connections to the Internet while America seems just one step ahead of the dial-up era, her office — or her book — would be a good place to find out.
In a recent conversation, she explained that wired and wireless connections, building blocks of modern life, are now essentially controlled by four companies. Comcast and Time Warner have a complete lock on broadband in the markets they control, covering some 50 million American homes, while Verizon and AT&T own 64 percent of cellphone service. Don’t get her started on the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger unless you have some time on your hands.
But don’t look for a jeremiad, either. A violist who plays in string quartets when she is not hammering telecom companies, Ms. Crawford is precise in her arguments and far from frantic in making them. The captains of industry who kidnapped telecoms and cable are not monsters, she says, merely shrewd capitalists who used leverage to maximize returns, no different or worse than the railroad or electricity barons of times past.
“They have acted in parallel to exclude competitors and used every lever they had to gain control over their markets. My whole book is essentially an argument to buy stock in cable companies,” she said with a laugh.
Her arguments don’t end there. High-capacity fiber connections to homes and businesses are not just a social good, but a business imperative, she says, and the lack of them will cripple American efforts to compete in a global economy.
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