Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Faulkner's Three Laws of Telecommunications

"We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company."
- Lillian Tomlin

As of 2006, Australia, a nation of twenty million people, has one million business telephone lines, six million residential lines and eighteen and a half million mobile telephones. If you don't have access to a telephone then you are either very poor, very young or living in a very isolated part of the country. Despite this, our society has only ever partly adjusted to the telephone. Here at Antenna & Vine we seek to enlighten the populace by bringing you the latest in telecommunications research: the Three Laws of Telecommunications.

The First Law is Everyone hates the telephone company. It doesn't matter where on Earth you look or who the telephone company is, everyone hates it. Dealing with the phone company is never pleasant; at best they are patronising, often they are just rude. We all suspect that we are overcharged and their technology never quite does what we want it to.

But, as the Second Law states Everyone knows how to fix the telephone company. Now most people could not explain how their own telephone works, let alone exchanges, tandems, trunks and microwave bearers, so the only souls foolish enough to suggest a particular technology as the solution are free-market economists.

But even economists are hesitant to suggest a change to the structure and operations of the telephone company because it does not matter if the telephone company is run by a government department, a corporation or a vegetarian commune,the governance is identical. Telephone companies invest large sums in plant and equipment which as a low margin high turnover business, can take ten, fifteen or twenty years to amortise, so the company is very resistant to technological change. Part of the work force are highly trained technicians and engineers who demand high pay. Even if they are not highly unionised (and they usually are), market forces drive high salary levels. These staff with high level skills in science and mathematics and poor people skills, tend to dictate the speed of repairs, the attitude to complaints and, as they move into management, the corporate culture.

No, everyone knows that you fix the telephone company by changing its ownership. If the telephone company is state-owned then "the greater efficiencies of private industry" are the answer - the government must privatise the telephone system. If the telephone company is a monopolistic corporation then "it must be exposed to the bracing winds of competition" and competitors are allowed into the market. If the market has several competing companies, then "strategic infrastructure cannot be left to the whims of speculators" so the government nationalises the companies.

The appearance in the 1980s of the doctrine of economic liberalism (or economic rationalism as it is known in Australia) has accelerated this process with, as an extreme example, Brazil going from competition to socialisation to private monopoly to competition in ten years.

So we come to the Third Law, of recent discovery: Once you have fixed the telephone company, everyone still hates it.
"They're just as bad as the old company, maybe a bit worse. How did that happen? We did all the right things!"
"Wait, I know how to fix it."

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