Monday, July 21, 2003

Reading:: The Telecommunications Industry

Originally posted: Mon, 21 Jul 2003 10:07:17

The Telecommunications Industry
by Susan E. McMaster

This is not a book to read for pleasure, but it's a solid introductory history of telecomm in the US. I was fortunately able to skim it because my teaching assistant, the diligent Bill Wolff, had already produced a timeline based on this book for a project we're working on. I took a break this week from actor-network theory and read this account of the telecomm industry instead, to help me make sense of the Telecorp data I'm analyzing. The book, frankly, was not fun to read -- its style is not honed -- but the subject matter is fascinating. In the US, the story of telecommunications is essentially the story of AT&T, and this book does a good job of describing the complex strategies and often bareknunckle tactics employed by that company and (later) its descendants, the so-called Baby Bells. Technology, legislation, market pressure, and other factors all figure into the story in a Machiavellian (or of you prefer, Latourean) mix.

The last two chapters were the most interesting for me. Once competition was let in -- first in the long distance sector, then in the local markets -- things get really interesting. AT&T is forced to allow other companies to hook to its network, a necessary step because that network was essentially the only national infrastructure and it simply wasn't possible for other companies to duplicate it, run wires alongside it, and compete with redundant infrastructure. Once the companies were allowed access, they could use the AT&T network as a base for growing their own networks; now we're seeing those networks spread at both national and local levels. Legislation meant that telecomm service could be black-boxed: the consumer could make the initial decision on CLEC and LD carriers, then these choices should fade away and just become "the telephone company" -- same area codes, prefixes, services, etc. Part of AT&T's strategy is to open that black box, create ruptures, so that people's experiences are significantly different from the familiar AT&T experience.

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