An acquaintance of mine accepted a job in Thailand years ago. He was amazed to discover that in what he assumed was a third world country, there were no cell phones and few landline phones. It seems that when Thailand was faced with the problem of a very mountainous terrain and modernization, they decided to go to satellite communication for all. So, in the most remote Thai village, people use satellite phones.
For that matter, Americans were surprised by the fact that Osama bin Laden used satellite phones to communicate.
There is a new book out called The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use “Plain English” to Rob You Blind by David Cay Johnston, a Putlitzer Prize winning reporter. The title is pretty obvious, but the story is much bigger than those pages of fine print that allow companies to reach around and grab your wallets. It’s about how far behind America is in technology delivery – about as far behind as we are in education (#13 on the U.N. Education Index) and health care delivery (#37 on the World Health Organization rankings). We are 29th in the world for internet speed.
On average, Americans pay 38 times as much for Internet as the Japanese. For a triple-play package — phone, internet, cable TV – the French pay $38 a month. We pay an average of $160. Split them up as I do – one company for each – and the costs go even higher.
Once upon a midnight dreary, we were told that if we broke up the AT&T telephone monopoly and allowed those wonderful free market forces to take over, our bills would drop, competition would rule. Not so. Landline bills have risen by an average of 400%, while cell phone bills are outrageous. Most of us can’t even figure out our phone bills.
Cable service has been even worse. Cable began as a means of bringing television to areas that could not get broadcast TV or, like my parents’ home in central Vermont, could only get one channel if the antenna was on the barn roof (we didn’t own the barn) and another channel if we put the antenna halfway up the mountain. A strong wind would have one of us at the antenna, one in the window and the third in front of the TV to holler “You got it!” We spent seven years watching NBC. But since 1995, cable prices have risen 2.6 times faster than the cost of living. Just between 2001 and 2011, basic cable has doubled nationally. One of the reasons Fox News beats MSNBC in the ratings is because Fox is basic cable and MSNBC is next tier and costs more.
Johnston writes that the reason this has happened is “The telecos got the rules changed while we weren’t watching.” Lobbyists managed to get laws and regulations changed to benefit them and hurt us.
In the past 20 years, the telecom industry has collected amost $500 billion from us to bring us the “Information Superhighway” but have not spent that money providing us with that national upgrade. Our information infrastructure is as worn out and outdated as our power grid, and they are holding our country back in the global economy.
When my younger daughter was in college, she brought a friend home for Thanksgiving. Ingrid was from Germany, and was telling us about a very bad day at home when she was locked in a drugstore because the city was suffering its first ever power failure. First ever in her 21 years of life. We considered ourselves lucky if we got through a thunderstorm without losing power.
AT&T was broken up to provide competition and reduce costs, but we have seen quite the opposite happen. Cable companies and internet providers hold local monopolies for services. I can get satellite TV, but not satellite internet because Comcast holds the internet monopoly for my city along with the cable monopoly. Verizon gave up building its fiber optic land lines and sold the land line business to a smaller company that has struggled with the structure and needs, which, of course, drove more people to Verizon wireless service. For land lines where they still own the systems, Verizon cut a deal that allows them to piggyback on Comcast cables. Instead of free flowing competition, we have AT&T and Verizon holding 60% of the phone service in America.
Profit is the great motivator in American industry. If it is possible to provide bad service at a high price, a company will do so. If it is possible to avoid having real employees with decent wages and benefits, companies will do so. The business model has a name, at least in retail. It’s called “The Walmart Model,” and it is not conducive to improving our economy.’
Republicans say that liberal don’t believe in “American Exceptionalism” because we point out what is wrong in our country. I think we believe in exceptionalism more than they do, and we want to be exceptional again, and America cannot be exceptional if we don’t admit how far we have slipped compared to the rest of the world.