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Telecom History and the Internet

I remember the puzzled looks from people back in the late-1980s and early-1990s when I told them I was studying telecommunications.  They looked perplexed. Why the hell would anyone want to study wires, switches, telephones. Boring!

It was indeed a bit of a hard sell. The history of telecoms, though, teaches us much about contemporary developments, not least those related to the Internet. In the previous post, I mentioned how Australia, in 2009, created the National Broadband Network Company in the face of incumbent obstruction. I also indicated that, worldwide, a dozen-and-half governments have earmarked $71 billion to extend next generation broadband networks to the doorstep, and to poor, rich urban and rural folk alike. I also referred to how Ofcom broke-up BT in the UK in 2005/6. Faced with all of this state intervention, the Paris-based consultancy, IDATE, wonders if we are witnessing the ‘renationalization’ of telecoms?

I don’t think so. All of this activity does, however, remind us of the role of politics and popular discontent in all things telecoms. Public uprising over the perceived under-development of communication networks, excessive rates, neglect of the rural and the poor, and so forth are not unique to the Internet. In Canada, they go back at least to the telephone in the late-19th and 20th centuries, and arguably to the telegraph and post office before that. Old media become the content of new media, as McLuhan once put it, warts and all.

In Canada, public outrage with the perceived under-development of the telephone system led to the Mulock Committee Inquiry in 1905. Hundreds of testimonies and piles of evidence later, the committee’s report seemed to fall on deaf ears. But in the next three years between 1906 and 1909, the Alberta Government Telephone System (1906), Manitoba Telephone System (1908) and SaskTel (1909) were created.

The public interest was not a phantom idea at this time.  Instead, it was the sum total of the expressions found in traces 0t the Mulock Report, journalism and what people were saying about the existing state of affairs and how they felt things ought to be. The under-development of communication networks not only sparked public discontent and political revolts, it spawned a legion of independent ‘network providers’ — some were state-owned, others were entrepreneurial, many were rural cooperatives, not a small number were municipally-owned (Thunder Bay Telephone).

Five years after Mulock (1910), the Board of Railway Commissioners (BRC) also stepped into the fray, this time to slay a loathed ‘double-headed news monopoly’ between the Canadian Pacific Telegraphs (to the west of Montreal) and the Western Union Telegraph Co. (with lines from Montreal to the Atlantic provinces and Nfld), on the one hand, and the NY-based Associated Press, on the other.  The two telegraph companies jointly held exclusive distribution rights for the Associated Press news agency in Canada. By ‘bundling’ the cost of transmission (the medium) with the cost of the news service (the message), they drove every potential rival news service out of business.

The monopoly over the wires, in short, conferred a monopoly over news. The impact on journalism was considerable, but indirect and hard to calculate.  The BRC, a long lost distant cousin of the CRTC, nonetheless nipped the operation in the bud.

The history of telecoms in Canada has much to teach. In this instance, these two examples teach us that the public interest is real, that public ownership is a potential, and that there is good reason to be concerned about letting those who control the medium control the message. Sections 27 and 36 of the current Telecommunications Act (1993) preventing those who own the wires from giving undue preferential treatment to their own services and from exercising editorial control over the messages transmitted through their networks are the legacies of this history.  The narrow choices that are being made about fundamental issues today is a matter of political expendiency and a denial of that history.

  1. July 6, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Wow, I had no idea about the provisions of the 1993 Telecommunications Act. You make some very informative points.

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