Unaffordable Rights

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Commentary by Steve Effros

I was listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR last week. She had a program about the plans now being floated to essentially get rid of the old copper, twisted-pair telephone plant and move entirely–over a period of years, of course–to newer technologies. An array of “experts” were on the show and, as usual, there were folks from different points of view to articulate the various positions.

What was missing, however, was something I think is missing more and more on the “interview” and “news” programs these days: knowledgeable questions. I don't mean by that an expectation that the interviewer or “host” can be an expert and ask the in-depth sort of detailed questions that are sometimes needed to get at the heart of complex issues. No, I would hope that in an exploration of something as big and complex as shifting from one major $200 Billion dollar infrastructure to another one there would be a common-ground starting point of understanding that there are a lot of difficult and issues to deal with, and there are no “simple” answers.

But it seems to me in many cases (and I think this is true in the broader sense, not just in the telecommunications arena, but we'll stick to that for now) the simple, obvious, basic questions aren't being asked. Ones that could lead the discussion in potentially more useful paths rather than just having combatants battle each other.

In the case of the “new” telephone infrastructure, the debate seemed to revolve around not letting the telcos “abandon” the “old” plant because it had certain attributes that were of value; particularly, it's self-powered, so in certain situations, like Hurricane Sandy, the story was told of folks seeking out phone booths because their cell phone batteries had died, and some of the cell tower back-up power wasn't sufficient to last for the week-plus power outages. All of that is true, but it misses a point: when the power lines got knocked down by the storm, so did the telephone lines… old or new. So the premise that we should be preserving an old multi-billion dollar infrastructure for safety reasons, and thereby slow new development, doesn't seem to make much sense. That core point was never made.

It's akin to the broadcaster argument I always rail against regarding the alleged critical public safety attributes of local television stations. The “tornado” argument. In fact, it makes more sense to support local radio stations, not television stations in a storm. But somehow that never gets mentioned.

The bottom line is often that the arguments flow around what we have become used to, and the desire by some to preserve what we have while at the same time demanding more and faster (and, of course, cheaper) development of new stuff. Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. We may have to, for instance, give up the “self powered” advantage of the twisted-pair to get the broadband speed advantage. Folks may have to rely more on battery back-up, or generators in the home than to insist on the maintenance of two entire infrastructures. Satellite or long-range wireless phones may be a logical replacement for running extremely expensive miles of cable in rural areas. Yes, as noted in the program last week, the sound quality may not be quite as good, at least for now, but the premise that we have a “right” and should insist on “having it all…” is simply an unaffordable right. We have to start looking, and thinking outside that box.

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