Review: Network Nation – Inventing American Telecommunications

Image courtesy of Harvard University Press

I spend an exorbitant amount of time reading about the legacies of today’s telecommunications networks. This serves to historically ground my analyses of today’s telecommunications ecosystem; why have certain laws, policies, and politics developed as they have, how do contemporary actions break from (or conform with) past events, and what cycles are detectable in telecommunications discussions. After reading hosts of accounts detailing the telegraph and telephone, I’m certain that John’s Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications is the most accessible and thorough discussion of these communications systems that I’ve come across to date.

Eschewing an anachronistic view of the telegraph and telephone – seeing neither through the lens that they are simply precursors to contemporary digital communications systems – John offers a granular account of how both technologies developed in the US. His analysis is decidedly neutral towards the technologies and technical developments themselves, instead attending to the role(s) of political economy in shaping how the telegraph and telephone grew as services, political objects, and zones of popular contention. He has carefully poured through original source documents and so can offer insights into the actual machinations of politicians, investors, municipal aldermen, and communications companies’ CEOs and engineers to weave a comprehensive account of the telegraph and telephone industries. Importantly, John focuses on the importance of civic ideals and governmental institutions in shaping technical innovations; contrary to most popular understandings that see government as ‘catching up’ to technicians post-WW I, the technicians have long locked their horns with those of government.

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The Consumable Mobile Experience

We are rapidly shifting towards a ubiquitous networked world, one that promises to accelerate our access to information and each other, but this network requires a few key elements. Bandwidth must be plentiful, mobile devices that can engage with this world must be widely deployed, and some kind of normative-regulatory framework that encourages creation and consumption must be in place. As it stands, backhaul bandwidth is plentiful, though front-line cellular towers in American and (possibly) Canada are largely unable to accommodate the growing ubiquity of smart devices. In addition to this challenge, we operate in a world where the normative-regulatory framework for the mobile world is threatened by regulatory capture that encourages limited consumption that maximizes revenues while simultaneously discouraging rich, mobile, creative actions. Without a shift to fact-based policy decisions and pricing systems North America is threatened to become the new tech ghetto of the mobile world: rich in talent and ability to innovate, but poor in the actual infrastructure to locally enjoy those innovations.

At the Canadian Telecom Summit this year, mobile operators such as TELUS, Wind Mobile, and Rogers Communications were all quick to pounce on the problems facing AT&T in the US. AT&T regularly suffers voice and data outages for its highest-revenue customers: those who own and use smart phones that are built on the Android, WebOS (i.e. Palm Pre and Pixi), and iOS. Each of these Canadian mobile companies used AT&T’s weaknesses to hammer home that unlimited bandwidth cannot be offered along mobile networks, and suggested that AT&T’s shift from unlimited to limited data plans are indicative of the backhaul and/or spectrum problems caused by smart devices. While I do not want to entirely contest the claim that there are challenges managing exponential increases in mobile data growth, I do want to suggest that technical analysis rather than rhetorical ‘obviousness’ should be applied to understand the similarities and differences between Canadian telcos/cablecos and AT&T.

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Review: Protectors of Privacy

Newman’s Protectors of Privacy: Regulating Personal Data in the Global Economy is exemplary in its careful exposition of Europe’s data protection regulations. Using a historical narrative approach, he demonstrates that Europe’s current preeminence in data protection is largely a consequence of the creation of regulatory authorities in member nations that were endowed with binding coercive powers. As a result of using the historical narrative method, he can firmly argue that neither liberal intergovermentalist nor neo-functionalist theories can adequately account for the spread of data protection regulations in the EU. Disavowing the argument that market size alone is responsible for the spread of data protection between member nations, or in explaining Europe’s ability to influence foreign data protection regulations, Newman argues that the considerable development of regulatory capacity in European member states, and the EU itself, is key to Europe’s present leading role in the field of data protection.

Drawing on recent telecommunication retention directives, as well as agreements between the EU and US surrounding the sharing of airline passenger information, Newman reveals the extent to which data protection advocates can influence transnational agreements; influence, in the EU, turns out to be largely dependent on situating data privacy issues within the First Pillar. For Newman, Europe’s intentional development of regulatory expertise at the member state, and subsequently EU level, as demonstrated in the field of data privacy and tentatively substantiated by his brief reflection on the EU’s financial regulatory capacity, may lead the EU to play a more significant role in shaping international action than would be expected, given its smaller market size as compared to the US, China, and India.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book. If you are interested in the role of regulatory capacity in the ongoing issues of personal data (especially as it pertains to the EU), or if you just want to read an inviting, concise, and well-developed historical account of the development of EU data protection regulations, then this book is a great way to spend an evening or three.