I recently learned Of Susan Crawford’s book Captive Audience when she was a guest on the “This Week in Law” podcast. In Captive Audience, Crawford examines the merger of Comcast and NBCUniversal. Crawford makes no attempt to hide her feelings on the nation’s largest cable provider getting (further) into the content business. The book is more of an advocacy journalism work than a dispassionate academic report. Comcast’s supporters may object to Crawford’s arguments, but her characterizations are refreshingly fair. She is quick to point out that the players are acting, not like evil madmen, but rational business actors pursuing their self-interests. Her main concern is that these interests do not line up with what she believes to be the public’s best interests.
Crawford does not blame Comcast CEO Brian Roberts for this disconnect, though his company has worked tirelessly to keep the status quo. The root of the problem is that the Internet industry is both unregulated and uncompetitive. Crawford rejects the notion that DSL, cellular, and satellite services are competitors to cable companies. DSL is too slow and satellite too high-latency for modern Internet applications and cellular, while convenient, is limited by lower bandwidth and small screen sizes.
The state of regulation for cable providers is like that of the early days of the rail road and electrical industries, which is to say non-existent. Cable providers lack the common carrier requirements imposed on the phone companies. As a result, Comcast and others are free to turn the Internet into a walled garden of curated channels, much like the current state of cable television. As dire of a picture as Crawford paints, it’s hard to see it as a likely threat. Plausible, certainly, but I don’t see it on the horizon.
Nevertheless, America clearly has an Internet problem. Our speeds and prices are worse than most of the developed world. In an age where high speed Internet access is increasingly important to social, academic, and economic activities, one third of Americans don’t subscribe to high speed Internet service. A strong correlation between non-subscribership and low socioeconomic status. If Internet connectivity is necessary for prosperity, expensive Internet prevents upward mobility.
Absent competitive pressure, the public interest can only be enforced by regulation. Interestingly, it was the Nixon administration that first sought to prevent monopolies in the cable industry. In recent years, Republicans and Democrats have proven equally unwilling to impose regulation on the industry. Municipal and private sector fiber installations seem to be the only near-term hope for keeping Comcast in check.
In short, I found Captive Audience to be an informative and compelling read. Crawford takes the reader through the history of monopolies in the United States and of the cable industry. She examines the technical and political reasons that Comcast became and remains a monopoly. In closing, Crawford looks at the effect that the Comcast/NBC merger had on AT&T’s failed attempt to purchase T-Mobile. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Internet policy.