Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Freeloading or Free Speech?

Say you have an old-fashioned wireline phone sitting on your back porch. One morning you wake up to see a stranger sitting there chatting away on it. You open the window and say, "Hey, buddy, that's my phone."

Covering the mouthpiece, the man replies, "Don't worry, it's a local call. Won't cost you a thing."

You probably wouldn't just shrug your shoulders and go back to bed. But a recent New York Times article described how a reporter did the wireless equivalent to a San Francisco man named Gary Schaffer. Using a new Wi-Fi-equipped mobile phone that made a free call over Mr. Schaffer's home wireless Internet connection, the reporter hung up, then identified himself and asked Mr. Schaffer whether it was okay with him. “If you’re a friend, I’d say, let’s give it a try,” he said, but he'd be uncomfortable if strangers tried to sponge that way.

Among other things, engineering ethics deals with ownership, property rights, and the just distribution of resources and costs involved in technology. But as communications systems blur distinctions that were once clear and unambiguous, we may have to rethink some assumptions that have been around so long, we've forgotten them.

Take the example of "plain old telephone service" (POTS, for short). For the first century or so of phone service, an individual subscriber in the U. S. leased (not owned) a considerable pile of fairly costly hardware from The Phone Company, which was usually the Bell System. The dial set, twisted-pair wires, network interface, and lines going all the way back to the central exchange building several miles away were solid, immobile, physical objects. Ownership and operating rights were clear-cut, and it was a simple matter, relatively speaking, to regulate the industry so that investors received a reasonable return on the hardware and software installed over the decades, and consumers were able to afford POTS at what passed for a reasonable cost.

Since then, technical advances have made the incremental cost of a simple phone call positively microscopic compared to what it used to be. Much of the turmoil in the telecom business in the last fifteen years or so has resulted from various attempts to deal with this fact. What is a fair charge for something that costs almost nothing? Of course, somebody had to pay for the extensive wireless, wired, and fiber-optic networks that tie the world together, but we are very far from the simple, monolithic picture the Bell System presented as late as the 1960s. If you trace the path of a phone call or an email, your signal may pass through systems owned by dozens or hundreds of different entities, ranging from the neighbor next door to the federal government. Sorting out who should pay for what is an increasingly complex business, and one that the consumer is poorly equipped to do. But everybody can understand the lure of free phone calls. Hence the potential popularity of mobile phones that use Wi-Fi links.

We can go in several directions from here. Any activity that benefits the individual and also has no incremental cost lies open to what economists call "the tragedy of the commons." The commons was an area of communally owned land in some parts of England which farmers could graze their cattle on without charge. As time went on and population increased, the overgrazing of land turned the commons into mudflats, putting an end to the practice.

The Wi-Fi spectrum itself is a limited resource, although it is far from completely unregulated, since the Federal Communications Commission sets the basic boundaries for its use. But if you happen to live on a busy Manhattan street and Internet-ready mobile phones become popular enough, the day might come when your home's wireless Internet connection is jammed up with chattering freeloaders, and you won't be able to use it. Or the airwaves might get so crowded that most of the phones become useless.

Fortunately, the ether recovers instantly as soon as people quit using it, and if the airwaves turned into an electronic mosh pit, unusability would soon decrease the crowding to a manageable level. This sort of thing doesn't happen to conventional cell-phone systems much because they are operated by organizations which make sure there is enough capacity in a given region to handle the anticipated number of calls.

The opposite pole to the unrestricted use of a limited resource, of course, is excessive regulation. Many would argue that the Bell System monopoly broken up by court decisions in 1984 was an example of a kind of self-regulated extreme which stifled technical innovation. It's much too late to debate that argument again, except to say that clarity in ownership and consumer rights is worth something. When there was only one phone company, it was easy to pay your communications bill. Nowadays, the typical young consumer may ante up each month to a phone company or two, a cable operator, a mobile phone outfit, an Internet provider, and possibly some MMOG (massively multiplayer online game) bills. It seems to be the nature of modern technology to widen the variety and types of choices available to the consumer, but all for a price.
And sometimes the price is not just dollars and cents, but undesirable changes in places we may never see.

Sources: The New York Times article " The Air Is Free, and Sometimes So Are the Phone Calls That Borrow It" was carried in the Nov. 27, 2006 online edition.

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