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Should Wireless Carriers Be Nationalized?

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This post was originally published on Datamation.com.

The United States Constitution requires the federal government to "establish Post Offices and post Roads" -- in other words, to own and run the U.S. Postal Service.

I think we should consider a Constitutional amendment that privatizes the Postal Service and nationalizes the wireless carriers.

No, I'm not a Chavez-hugging, Maoist commie. Quite the opposite: I believe in free markets and strongly oppose the nationalization of industries, as a general rule.

But I also believe that any rational person who agrees with the reasoning behind the Constitution's Postal Clause should support the nationalization of the wireless carriers, simply because the wireless Internet plays the same role today that the post office played in 18th-century America.

Why Does the U.S. Postal Service Exist?

Constitutionally mandated government ownership and control of a service for delivering envelopes and boxes seems strange.

But the drafters of the Constitution had some very good reasons.

First and foremost, they wanted to put "united" into the United States. By controlling the mail system, they could make sure that every state, every business and every individual could interact and communicate with every other at the same cost and at high speed (by 18th-century standards).

The cost of delivering mail to remote locations was far more expensive than the price paid for postage. The founders deliberately decided to lose money on remote mail service for the greater good of unity, fairness and national prosperity.

Without the U.S. Postal Service, of course, private companies would have delivered mail. But the founding fathers wisely understood that allowing private control of the nation's information circulatory system would have held the United States back when it needed to excel.

The reason is that private companies would have ignored expensive routes -- they wouldn't have built thousands of miles of roads just to connect remote farms to the information system.

Furthermore, private companies would have sprung up locally, rather than nationally. These private companies would have varied in their infrastructure modernization, standards, fees and more. Shipping from one state to another would have involved the transfer of parcels from one organization to another.

They may have disagreed on standards for fees, package sizes, delivery times and more. Shipping a package from New York to Florida would have been like shipping from New York to the Philippines -- expensive, un-trackable and sometimes unreliable.

So the drafters of the Constitution avoided all these problems by mandating centralized government control of the postal system.

Why Nationalizing the Carriers Is a Good Idea

Obviously, the Internet -- and increasingly the wireless Internet -- have replaced hand-written letters as the information circulatory system of the nation and the world. The Internet plays the central political, social, cultural and economic role that the U.S. Postal Service once did.

And all the nation-damaging effects that the drafters of the Constitution feared would happen with private post offices is in fact happening because of private wireless carriers.

The major carriers -- Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA -- have reliable wireless data service in all those places where it's convenient and profitable for them to do so. Everywhere else, not so much.

Why? Because they serve the needs of their shareholders, not the needs of public.

People in rural areas are generally at a huge disadvantage -- some 19 million people in the United States still, after all these years, don't have access of any kind to broadband Internet, let alone world-class mobile broadband.

In contrast, some areas have relatively fast services -- individuals, business and organizations in those areas have an unfair advantage over area where speeds are slow or coverage is non-existent. In the United States, all men are created equal, but all wireless coverage is not.

The United States, which invented both the Internet and the mobile phone, is now an international basket case and laggard in mobile broadband distribution and performance. The US is below the top ten for mobile broadband penetration, download speeds andevery other metric you could come up with.

Mediocre and unevenly distributed mobile broadband service in the United States acts as a brake on the wheels of economic progress.

In recent years, the wireless carriers have all but eliminated unlimited data plans. They're throttling peak-hour bandwidth, and nickle-and-diming their customers to death. All this increasingly makes the United States less competitive, as more and more business relies on wireless data communication.

And the carriers have turned the provisioning of wireless broadband into a shell game. You get a huge subsidy on your phone, and they just fold the rest of the price into your required two-year contract.

But what price? How much did they really charge you for the phone?

There's no way to know. How much is the value of the service you're really getting? Again, no way to know.

Wireless carriers gouge the public by hiding costs inside a cloud of ignorance.

A recent UCLA study found that carriers routinely overcharge customers for services they didn't actually receive.

And mobile broadband done right would also do something about the fixed-broadband ripoff.

Many U.S. customers have little to no choice in fixed broadband service providers. It's usually a forced marriage with the cable TV company, which gouges customers with insanely high rates for mediocre service.

A super high-bandwidth, nationally provisioned mobile broadband system would offer home and business Internet connectivity to take place via mobile broadband, and thus offer a competitive alternative to local cable monopolies.

Why Nationalizing the Carriers Is a Bad Idea

Of course, the nationalization of wireless carriers is very, very unlikely. For starters, the carriers are extremely "generous" when it comes to contributing to political campaigns.

AT&T, for example, is one of the largest private industry contributor in the country. The carriers' golf buddies in Congress are unlikely to vote against their friends.

Second, the polarized political climate would make it nearly impossible to gain widespread public support. "Nationalization" is a dirty word -- and should be -- but the reflexive, dogmatic political thinking that dominates politics now would prevent any significant number of politicians from even considering this idea out loud. (It's worth pointing out that the same thing would happen if we were to try and start a national space program today -- it would never happen.)

Third, the privacy watchdogs would oppose it, believing that if the government controlled the wireless Internet, they would be able to snoop on citizens. (The reality is that they do so already, and hide behind the cover of the private companies -- the Freedom of Information Act doesn't apply to AT&T.)

And fourth, even rational, open-minded people might rightly observe that government is incapable of keeping up with technology or running organizations efficiently.

Here's How to Do It

One way for this nationalization to take place would be for Congress to pass a law that simultaneously privatizes the Postal Service and nationalizes wireless carriers.

An alternative would be to keep the post office: Congress could pass a law that defines all electronic traffic conveyed over the public airwaves as "mail." That would make the Constitutional mandate apply to wireless.

(Hey, if a tattoo can be ruled Constitutionally protected "speech," then wireless data packets can be ruled "mail.")

Internationally competitive mobile broadband should be mandated by law. Phone contracts should be banned, and all wireless service should be paid for monthly at national rates.

All mobile handsets should be sold unlocked, so they can compete with each other on actual price, rather than on the financial might of the handset maker (cough) Apple! (cough).

Net neutrality should be part of the Constitutional amendment, or "Wireless Nationalization Act of 2012" or whatever they would call it.

Customers paying for unlimited data would actually get unlimited data regardless of whether they want to use it during peak hours, and regardless of whether they want to use it for things like FaceTime.

Nationalizing the wireless carriers is obviously a bad idea. But sometimes I wonder whether the current situation is even worse.

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