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American Integrity

Holding The Line With The Connected Household
by Peter G. Miller

In the world of the future, telephone lines, Internet access, electric power and cable services will all be delivered to us by a single provider, if we are to believe a growing number of seers, soothsayers, power companies, cable firms and electric utilities.

The advantage, it's explained, is that people want one-stop shopping and all costs will be on a single bill. And the connected future, we are told, is not too many years away.

This is the moment when a tremor of doubt begins to sneak in. Somehow I'm not so sure I want everything from one company. While I'm certain each company is comprised entirely of good folks and is charitable too, the idea of combining basic services holds no thrill for me.

Go back a few generations and a typical household had one phone, typically a black, indestructible instrument operated with a dial. The next generation likely had two phones -- one in the kitchen and another in a bedroom. This generation seems to have one or two personal lines with extensions everywhere -- as well as separate lines for a computer, fax and home office.

Although phone lines have increased to the point where we have a number shortage in some areas, it's not the volume of phone lines which is a concern, rather it's the one-stop approach that raises questions of reliability and cost.

Over the weekend, for example, we had one of the thunderstorms for which the local area is famous. One bolt hit a local office building and the result was an Internet connection which reached all the way to the basement -- but no further. Meanwhile, in the same building, the phone and electrical service were fine.

Now imagine if one company provided all common services. Would they all work? Would none of them work? Would some be "on" while others were "off?"

Rather than play connection roulette, is it not better to have a redundant system so that if one system goes out the others will remain working and available? Is it not better to let companies specialize in one field, so they can put all their energy into getting that service right?

The idea of combining phone, electric, cable and Internet bills onto one monthly statement will produce all the clarity of a new car sale. Have you looked at your phone bill lately? Is it longer or shorter than your income tax return? The idea that one bill will be clearer than three or four others is an illusion; what we might end up with is one statement will the details of all four bills, none of which make a great deal of sense by themselves.

No less important, the fact that bills are combined does not mean costs would go down. Instead, you would expect competitive services to have low prices while monopoly services would rise and rise -- think of cable bills.

Imagine if a local monopoly controlled not just your phone, cable or electric service, but all three -- and Internet access to boot. Do you think a local monopoly would improve service? Hire more workers? Keep down costs? Invest in new technologies?

There are also security reasons to prefer separate systems from separate providers. Think of the huge Northeast blackout a few years ago. The power was out -- but the phones worked.

Lastly there is the matter of privacy. Do you really want one company to know who you call, what you watch and where you surf? Is that not a little creepy?

So when folks start to tell you of all the wonders to be created by one-stop shopping and fewer power lines, ask what you would really prefer: Fewer lines or more reliable services, high monopoly costs or low costs from competition. The choice may soon be yours.