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April 15, 2003

the commons & common carriers

Some people regard the telephone network as a "commons," because the telephone companies have been regulated as "common carriers" by the FCC. Today, the Commission simply defines "common carrier" as "the term used to describe a telephone company." But the underlying idea (which the FCC may have forgotten in this deregulatory era) would apply just as well to railway lines or postal services as to AT&T. A true common carrier agrees to move any good, message, or person (depending on the medium) from anywhere in its system to anywhere else for a price that depends only on factors that affect its own costs, e.g., distance and weight or duration. A common carrier may not discriminate on the basis of the content of the message or the identity of the customer. For example, a telephone company may not refuse to carry a phone call because of the speakers' political views, nor may it charge different fees for different kinds of speech. A common carrier railroad would have to carry any passenger from any point A to any point B.

To preserve the common carrier ideal, regulations traditionally prevented owners of communications systems from providing other services. This was because firms that provided "content" as well as the "conduit" would tend to discriminate in favor of their own services. For example, if the telephone company provided 1-900 services, then it would be tempted to give its own calls preferential treatment. For similar reasons, cable-TV providers might give their own channels favored treatment, if they were allowed to offer programming.

A common carrier telecommunications system is an important base for the Internet, because it allows digital messages to be transmitted regardless of their content, thus keeping the Internet uncensored and flexible. But is a common carrier system a commons? We experience a classic commons as collective property or as no one's property—as "free." I do not think that we view telephone lines as common property. If they resemble a commons, it is for a combination of three reasons: (1) the common carrier rules; (2) the very low marginal cost of each minute of use, at least for local calls; and (3) government programs that have brought telephones into most homes, even in rural and poor urban neighborhoods. If any of these three conditions were missing, then the telephone system would not feel like a commons. This is a significant conclusion because it suggests that three types of regulations are necessary preconditions of the Internet as we know it.

April 15, 2003 11:48 AM | category: Internet and public issues | Comments


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